Tornado survivors’ stories: Flying Jeeps, moving earth, neighborhoods gone

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[Updated at 9:57 p.m. ET] More than 280 people have been killed by the wave of violent weather that has swept across the South the past two days.

Survivors told of entire neighborhoods reduced to rubble and the terror of tornadoes ripping through their homes and businesses.

Here are the voices of some survivors:

Shortly before a massive tornado tore through her Tuscaloosa, Alabama, neighborhood on Wednesday, Lucy Arnold Sykes decided the weather was ominous enough to shelter her 3-year-old and 6-year-old children in a bathtub.

“I ran in with the kids and kind of joked (to my husband), ‘Don’t make fun of me for putting the kids in the bathtub, but I think this is serious,’ ” she told CNN’s “The Situation Room” on Thursday. “He went out for one last look, and … he came back in with kind of a strange look on his face, and he said, ‘It’s right outside the door.’ ”

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The edge of the tornado passed across the street, but the wind tore apart a corner of the house, sent a tree crashing onto the roof, broke nearly all the windows and flipped her vehicle from the curb onto her front lawn.

The family is OK and stayed with friends on Wednesday night.

“(The kids) want to know when they’re going to go back home. I don’t think that will be anytime soon. We’re going to be looking for a new house,” she said.

Brian Wilhite is an internist at Druid City Hospital in Tuscaloosa. He spoke to CNN on Thursday morning.

“It looked more like a Vietnam War site than a hospital. I know one physician who watched two people die right in front of him. There was nothing he could do.”

And as for the city, where 36 people were known to have been killed as of Thursday morning:

“It looks like an atomic bomb went off in a straight line. It’s probably close to a mile wide. There are areas where neighborhoods are completely gone.”

Restaurant owner Gary Lewis described what he saw on 15th Street in Tuscaloosa for al.com:

“Everything I saw was gone. (McAlister’s), major damage. No Taco Casa, no McDonald’s, Mike and Ed’s Barbeque, major damage. All those houses on that little lake are splintered. This thing (Wednesday) afternoon was a monster.”

University of Alabama business student Michael Neese took cover in the stairwell of his apartment near 15th Street, according to Raycom News Network.

“It was like a white cloud just twirling in the parking lot next door to me. All of 15th Street is gone,” he said.

University of Alabama student Adam Melton told The Crimson White he was in off-campus housing as the storm approached. “When it hit, the house lifted up off of us, and then a Jeep Cherokee came right over us and hit me in the head. We were underneath … the Jeep on our knees and chest for the end of it. After we got hit, we pulled five or six people out, but it was gone. The house was gone.”

Fred Jackson, 48, told The Tuscaloosa News what it was like in Tuscaloosa’s Alberta community:

“The earth went to moving. Roots were pulling up. Everything was moving. The house is destroyed. We had to get out through a window. … Alberta is gone. I’ve lost everything.”

In Pleasant Grove, Alabama, Charisse Hudson on Thursday tried to figure out which pile of debris was her home. Flattened homes and downed trees littered her neighborhood, making it difficult to get her bearing. Eventually, she found her property.

“The only reason I knew this was my house was because my car was on top of it,” she said, referencing the blue vehicle resting on a mound of rubble.

Before Wednesday’s storm struck, the Hudson family left the home because the power had gone out.

“It was a blessed thing we did,” Hudson said. “One of our neighbors said, ‘Well, I’m going to tough it out. I’m going to stay home.’ ” Asked whether she knew where that neighbor was Thursday, she answered, on the verge of tears: “I’m not sure.”

Beth Varden took shelter during Wednesday’s storm with her husband in the basement of their Pleasant Grove home. The step was rare for her: She likes to sit outside to watch storms but said she sensed that Wednesday’s weather was different.

After the couple were in the basement, “the house was really shaking, and stuff started sucking out of the garage,” she recalled Thursday. “You could hear everything moving upstairs moving around, and you hear a roar.”

“After (the storm) left, we came out, and the first thing we saw was (a neighbor’s) house gone,” she said.

Most of the houses in the immediate area were heavily damaged or destroyed, but hers was standing. She said she’s struggling with guilt because her neighbors’ homes weren’t spared.

Rachael Mulder was asleep in her second-floor apartment in Duncanville, Alabama, just before the storm devastated the building. Her husband woke her up.

“I just remember him running in and grabbing me and saying, ‘Honey, hurry! Get in the tub!’ And we ran in the tub and took shelter, and probably 30 seconds later, it was just like so loud, and it was just like an earthquake, almost,” she said.

When the storm passed, only the bathroom was standing. Her husband opened the bathroom door, “and we were outside.”

Mulder, a nurse, said her husband called her to an injured woman in another damaged unit.

“I grabbed my first aid kit and ran down the stairs, and tried to help her. I tried to stop her bleeding and save her, but she was taking her last breaths, and she passed away right there,” she said.

In Hueytown, Alabama, Jason Wilson gathered his family, including a daughter, 10, and son, 7, in an auto repair shop his family owns, according to al.com.

“We was fixing to go home and heard the siren. We took cover. It’s about all you can do. And then it just blew the roof off.”

In the northern Georgia town of Ringgold, where at least three people were killed in Wednesday’s storms, Reba Self told CNN Radio that she and her mother are lucky to be alive. There were in the lower portion of a house when a storm hit, knocking the home off its foundation and causing a tree to fall through the roof.

“I don’t know how we lived through it, but we did,” she said Thursday.

In Smithville, Mississippi, Tammie Vaughn told the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal how a twister swept into the town of 900.

“There was a lot of fog from the rain, and all of a sudden the fog disappeared, swept into the swirl of the tornado, and it sounded awful. I’ve never seen or heard anything like it.”

In Tennessee, William Hart told the Chattanooga Times Free Press how he grabbed his 3-year-old son and dived for a small space between the foot of his bed and a dresser in their doublewide trailer home.

“I heard the roof rip off. The mirror fell over this way and was actually laying on me. And I was just thinking, ‘That’s the end of it for the both of us.’ I know the only reason I’m alive is by the grace of God. He was protecting me and my son.”

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