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8 students killed when tornado hits high school


A violent storm system ripped apart an Alabama high school as students hunkered inside and later tore through Georgia, hitting a hospital and raising the death toll to at least 20 across the Midwest and Southeast.

Eight students died when a tornado struck Enterprise High School, Mayor Kenneth Boswell said today. The teenage victims were all in a wing of the school that took a direct hit as the tornado blew out the walls and roof.

"It was in a split second that we sat down and started to cover ourselves before the storm hit," said 17-year-old Kira Simpson, who lost four friends to the storm. "Glass was breaking. It was loud."

"It's like a bad dream. I have to keep reminding myself that it actually happened," she said.

As the massive storm system swept into Georgia, another tornado apparently touched down near the Sumter Regional Hospital in Americus, 117 miles south of Atlanta, blowing out the windows, tossing cars into trees and killing at least two people, said Buzz Weiss of the Georgia Emergency Management Agency.

Doctors, nurses and volunteers had worked into the night to evacuate dozens of patients.

"It was controlled chaos," said Dr. Tim Powell, an anesthesiologist.

Six more people were killed in the town of Newton, Ga., including a child, and several homes were destroyed, Fire Chief Andy Belinc said early this morning. "We're still tying to assess everything," Belinc said. Georgia's governor declared a state of emergency.

The burst of tornadoes was part of a larger line of thunderstorms and snowstorms that stretched from Minnesota to the Gulf Coast. Authorities blamed tornadoes for the deaths of a 7-year-old girl in Missouri, 10 people in Alabama and nine in Georgia, and twisters also damaged homes in Kansas.

Early this morning, the storm was drenching the Carolinas. A tornado warning was posted through late morning for the North Carolina coast. In South Carolina, the Coast Guard prepared to search for six people on a small boat who sent a distress call during the storm saying they were taking on water off the coast. The strong wind made it difficult to get a helicopter up today to search, Petty Officer 1st Class Donnie Brzuska.

In all, the National Weather Service received 31 reports of tornadoes Thursday from Missouri, Illinois, Alabama, Georgia and Florida, plus a report today of a waterspout near Cartaret, N.C.

The normal peak tornado season is April and May, but weather service meteorologist Dennis Feltgen said tornadoes can occur at any time.

At Enterprise High School, officials had been watching the storm Thursday as it swept through southern Missouri and headed into Alabama. The students were preparing to leave for the day when the sirens started up and the lights went out.

Teacher Grannison Wagstaff was with them.

"I said 'Here it comes. Hit the deck," he told CBS's "The Early Show" today. "I turned around and I could actually see the tornado coming toward me."

As the students scrambled for shelter, a section of roof and a wall near 17-year-old senior Erin Garcia collapsed on her classmates.

"I was just sitting there praying the whole time," Erin said. "It sounded like a bunch of people trying to beat the wall down. People didn't know where to go. They were trying to lead us out of the building.

"I kept seeing people with blood on their faces."

Outside, debris from the school was strewn around the neighborhood, where cars were flipped or tossed atop each other.

The mayor said officials had yet to determine where students in the school of about 2,000 would attend classes for the rest of the year. He appeared drained as his staff and National Guard crews tried to assess the damage at dawn and search the torn-up neighborhoods for more victims.

"You take it methodically," Boswell said. "You prioritize, and you move on."

At least one other person was killed in Enterprise, a city of about 23,000 some 75 miles south of Montgomery. Another died across the state in rural Millers Ferry, where trailer homes were flipped and trees toppled, officials said.

In Sumter County, Ga., home of former President Jimmy Carter, Sumter Regional Hospital was in shambles this morning. Officials weren't sure whether the people injured and the two reported dead in town were inside the hospital when the storm struck, Weiss said.

Near Newton, about 50 miles south of the hospital, Marvin Hurst was home with his wife and 31-year-old son when the storm hit and the house "exploded." Only a few sections of rear wall were left standing.

"It's just by the grace of God that we got out," Hurst said.

Between 40 and 60 homes were also damaged in nearby Clay County, on the Alabama line, Weiss said. Another tornado killed a man in a mobile home in Taylor County, north of Americus, county Emergency Management Agency Director Gary Lowe said.

Gov. Sonny Perdue flew by helicopter to damaged areas today and issued an executive order declaring a state of emergency in Baker, Clay, McDuffie, Stewart, Sumter and Taylor counties, clearing the way for state aid.

"The state will do everything we can to help the communities affected by the storms," Perdue said.

Around Americus, the storm uprooted trees and knocked down power lines. Several homes and businesses were destroyed in downtown Americus. Among the worst hit was Cheek Memorial Church. Its wooden steeple was knocked off the roof and smashed in front of the church.

Marcia Wilson, who lives across the street from the Church, said she heard a huge roar as the storm went through.

"It felt like the whole house was fixing to fall in," she said. "We could just hear it coming over us. All I could do was pray that God take care of us and he did. We're all right."