JOPLIN, Missouri (Reuters) – A monster tornado nearly a mile wide killed at least 116 people in Joplin, Missouri when it tore through the heart of the small Midwestern city, ripping the roof off a hospital and destroying thousands of homes and businesses.
U.S. weather officials said the tornado that hit the city of 50,000 at dinnertime on Sunday was deadliest single tornado in the country since 1953.
Emergency officials said on Monday 116 people were killed and about 400 were injured. According to local officials many had massive internal injuries.
Seven people have been rescued, Missouri Governor Jay Nixon told a news conference in Joplin. Emergency crews searched through the night and through Monday’s driving rain and thunderstorm for anyone left alive.
Storm survivors told harrowing stories of riding out the winds of 190-198 mph in walk-in coolers in restaurants and convenience stores, hiding in bathtubs and closets, and of running for their lives as the tornado bore down.
“We were getting hit by rocks and I don’t even know what hit me,” said Leslie Swatosh, 22, who huddled on the floor of a liquor store with several others, holding onto each other and praying.
When the tornado passed, the store was destroyed but those who had ducked inside were all alive. “Everyone in that store was blessed. There was nothing of that store left,” she said.
More severe storms were predicted for the region, in a year that has brought tornadoes of record intensity across several states. Further complicating the rescue effort, power lines were downed, broken gas lines ignited fires, and cell phone communications were spotty due to 17 toppled phone towers.
“We still believe there are folks alive under the rubble and we’re trying hard to reach them,” Nixon said.
A number of bodies were found along the city’s “restaurant row,” on the main commercial street and a local nursing home took a direct hit, Newton County Coroner Mark Bridges said.
Roaring along a path nearly six miles long and about 1/2 mile to 3/4 mile wide, the tornado flattened whole neighborhoods, splintered trees, flipped cars and trucks upside down and into each other. Some 2,000 homes and many other businesses, schools and other buildings were destroyed.
At St John’s hospital 180 patients cowered as the fierce winds blew out windows and pulled off the roof. According to AccuWeather.com Senior Meteorologist Alan Reppert, x-ray films from the hospital were found 70 miles away in a driveway.
The city’s residents were given about 20 minutes’ notice when 25 warning sirens sounded throughout the southwest Missouri town around 6 p.m. CDT, said Jasper County Emergency Management Director Keith Stammers.
But the governor said many people likely were unable to get to shelter in time. “The bottom line was the storm was so loud you probably couldn’t hear the sirens going off.” He declared a state of emergency and called out the Missouri National Guard to help.
An estimated 20,000 homes and businesses were without power in Joplin, and to help with communications Verizon Wireless, a unit of Verizon Communications Inc, said it was delivering three temporary cell towers to provide emergency wireless service.
The Joplin tornado was the latest in a string of powerful twisters that has wreaked death and devastation across many states, and it comes as much of the Mississippi River valley is underwater from historic flooding.
Twisters killed more than 300 people and did more than $2 billion in damage across southern states last month, killing more than 200 in Alabama alone.
Two refrigerated trucks were brought in to serve as a make-shift morgue at a local university and more were being brought in to handle the additional bodies expected, the coroner said.
“I would be surprised if we don’t find more today,” Bridges said. Multiple victims were taken from several locations around the city, including a nursing home.
“People … have been pouring in looking for loved ones and they can’t find them, looking for friends, can’t find them,” Bridges said.
Joplin City Councilwoman Melodee Colbert-Kean, who serves as vice mayor, said the town was in a state of “chaos.”
“It is just utter devastation anywhere you look to the south and the east — businesses, apartment complexes, houses, cars, trees, schools, you name it, it is leveled, leveled,” she said.
President Barack Obama called the governor Sunday evening to “extend his condolences” to the families of Joplin. White House spokesman Nicholas Shapiro said Federal Emergency Management Agency head Craig Fugate was on his way to Joplin to help with recovery.
The tornado in Joplin was one of a string over the weekend.
On Saturday night, a tornado ripped through Reading, Kansas, killing one and damaging 200 homes and businesses. Another person was killed in a tornado in Minneapolis on Sunday.
The storms that hit Joplin continued a path of destruction eastward through the Ohio Valley region, bringing golf ball-sized hail and 50 mile-per-hour winds to Tennessee, knocking down trees and power lines and stripping roofs from building.
Among the thousands sent scurrying for their lives on Sunday were Floyd Rockwell, 74, and his wife, Donna. They were at a Baptist church service when the tornado hit. Rockwell lay across his 71-year-old wife to try to protect her as the funnel cloud took off the church roof and sent cinder block walls tumbling down.
Rockwell saw at least one body pulled from the rubble but was told six more people did not survive. When the shaken couple tried to return to their home, they found it had also been lost to the storm. Rockwell is sure the couple would have died had they been there instead of at church.
“It’s gone,” he said. “We’re starting over.”
(Writing by Carey Gillam and Matthew Lewis; additional reporting by David Bailey, Colleen Jenkins, Chris Michaud, Tim Ghianni, and Scott DiSavino; Editing by Jackie Frank)