Killer Tornadoes: Tales of Survival, Tragedy From Southeast Hit by Twisters

From Alabama to Georgia, residents barely escape storms.

ByEnjoli Francis and Yunji De Nies
April 28, 2011, 6:17 AM

April 28, 2011 — -- For Jim and Sherryl Brewer, a quick trip to the Food Lion supermarket for a gallon of milk Wednesday in Ringgold, Ga., quickly turned into a scene straight from the "Wizard of Oz."

As they pulled into the store's parking lot, the storm system that has brought deadly twisters, soaking rains and damaging winds to the Southeast this week arrived.

"When I opened the door the first time, the wind just took it and wrapped it around. I knew then it was too late," Jim Brewer said. Now stuck in their Toyota Forerunner, the couple tried to ride out the tornado.

"My husband put his arm through the steering wheel and grabbed hold of me," Sherryl Brewer said. "We just kind of held onto each other."

The twister shattered the car's windows and spun the car around, lifting its back end several times.

"We had glass in our hair. There was blood all over my hands and my legs. ... I've got little cuts where the glass went flying through the air," Sherryl Brewer said. "I don't think it lasted more than 15 seconds."

When the tornado moved on, the Brewers' car was on its side and the pair were pinned inside. Jim Brewer said they got out of the car through the sunroof after yelling for help.

"God was looking after us. There is a God. He took care of us," he said.

This week's storms have killed some 300 people and destroyed several towns and cities, leaving more than 450,000 in six states without power.

Ricky Gilliland of Cullman, Ala., came face-to-face with the tornado that partially flattened his tiny town Wednesday.

"I looked up and right in my face about two, 300 hundred feet in front of me, the tornado was there coming straight for my house and me," he told WBMA-TV today. "I run to my truck as quick as I can and jumped in it and tried to outrun it."

He got away. Others were not as lucky.

Jerry Stewart, a retired firefighter from Birmingham, Ala., hid under the front porch of his house with his wife, daughter and two grandchildren. "It happened so fast it was unbelievable," he said.

He said two neighbors down the street from his house did the same as his family, but were killed when their home was pulled from its foundation. "They say the storm was in Tuscaloosa and it would be here in 15 minutes. Before I knew it, it was here," Stewart said.

Stacey Peavy said she found her daughter Kylie, 13, lying on her mattress in the side yard after a tornado that hit Spalding County in Georgia "just sucked [her] out" with the rest of the end of their home.

"She was yelling for me and I was yelling for her," Peavy told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Kylie suffered a bruise to the head but no serious injury.

Mike Whitt said he heard a roar when a massive tornado touched down in Tuscaloosa, Ala., late Wednesday afternoon. Whitt, a doctor doing his residency at DCH Regional Medical Center, said he ran from the hospital's parking lot when the wind started swirling.

Tornado Flattens Tuscaloosa, Alabama

"When I looked back, I just saw trees and stuff coming by," Whitt told The Associated Press. Today, he walked through the neighborhood next to the hospital, where dozens of homes stood without roofs. Household items were scattered all over.

Tuscaloosa, a city of more than 83,000 and home to the University of Alabama, was leveled.

Mike Honeycutt, a grocery store manager, said the storm tore off his store's roof and shattered the windows.

"The power went out of the building and the building started shaking," he said. "The windows were shaking. ... Then the wind started blowing stuff off of the shelves."

In Mississippi, two sisters, Florrie Green and Maxine McDonald, and their sister-in-law Johnnie Green were killed when the storm overtook their mobile home.

"They were thrown into those pines," said Mary Green, Johnnie Green's daughter-in-law. "They had to go look for their bodies."

And in Choctaw County, Miss., Louisiana police officer Wade Sharp was killed Wednesday as he tried to shield his 9-year-old daughter from a tree that had fallen onto their tent. She was not hurt.

At Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson airport, air traffic controller, Rob Thorne said Wednesday's weather made it the worst day he'd experienced in five years at the tower. Crosswinds forced 40 planes to make go-arounds that had to be handled by the tower and the Atlanta TRACON in Peachtree City.

By 11 p.m., when departures are usually finished for the day, airplanes crowded the tarmac waiting for the storm system to move.

"When I left the tower at midnight, there were still 50 planes waiting to go. But they couldn't because the storm was so large," said Thorne. "It extended well off our radar scopes, probably 40 miles to the west. They didn't get everyone on their way until probably around 4 a.m."

The airport's tower, which is one of the tallest in the world, swayed all day, according to workers. One controller said that leaving the tower felt like getting off a cruise ship.

ABC News affiliate WBMA and The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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