WYNNE, Ark. -- With tornadoes hitting the Midwest and the South this weekend, some survivors said they emerged from their homes to find buildings ripped apart, vehicles tossed around like toys, shattered glass and felled trees.
J.W. Spencer, 88, had never experienced a tornado before, but when he and his wife saw on TV that a tornado was nearing their town of Wynne, Arkansas, he opened a front window and rear door in his house to relieve air pressure. The couple scurried into the bathroom, where they got into the bathtub and covered themselves with quilts and blankets for protection.
Fifteen minutes later, the storm unleashed its fury on the town nestled among the flat fields and fertile farmland of eastern Arkansas. Debris came whistling through their house.
“We just rode it out," Spencer said on Saturday. "We heard stuff falling, loud noises. And then it quit. It got quiet.”
After it passed, the couple emerged to see devastation in the neighborhood.
“We come through it real good, as far as the physical part,” Spencer said.
Many large trees were down in the community of 8,000 residents who take pride in their schools, their churches, their mom-and-pop restaurants and other businesses. Numerous single-family homes were damaged, especially near the high school, which had its roof shredded and windows blown out.
Near a theater in Belvidere, Illinois, where a tornado killed one man and injured 40 concertgoers, Ross Potter picked up glass shards Friday in front of his building. The last time the town was devastated to this extent from a tornado was in 1967.
Ambulances whirred by after the theater was hit.
“They took, I can’t even remember how many people,” Potter said. He was lucky — only a few of his building's windows were broken, mostly on the second floor. Across the street, most of the brick siding on a storefront was ripped away.
Back in Wynne in northeastern Arkansas, Alan Purser stopped in his pickup truck to chat with Spencer. Purser described how he rode out the tornado with his cats in his home, which is being remodeled. He took a risk, sheltering in the sun room which is covered by glass, but it was one of the few rooms not being remodeled.
“I just lay down with my cats, and lay a blanket over me, and let it rumble,” he said of the tornado that flipped over the camper van parked outside.
From his front porch in Covington, Tennessee, Billy Meade Jr. said he watched a tornado pass through, before hail struck and the sky darkened.
“You could see the swirl,” Meade said. “The rain was like a sheet. You couldn’t even hardly see past the rain, it was so dark. But you could see the swirl going past.”
Less than a mile (1.6 kilometers) away, a tornado struck the elementary school that Meade’s twin sons go to, as well as a middle school next door. On Saturday morning, an exposed gymnasium's bleachers were visible through a crushed brick wall. Much of the roof was ripped off.
“The neighborhood I’m in looks fine — it’s like nothing even happened,” Meade said. “But as soon as you go around the corner, it’s like devastation. There’s power lines down everywhere … all kinds of stuff everywhere.”
And as a tornado hit Little Rock, Arkansas, workers at a Tropical Smoothie Cafe cowered together in the bathroom.
“It was really loud because the glass started breaking,” said Irulan Abrams, an employee who stood outside the building near a door with broken windows. A siren howled in the distance. She said one person was injured.
“Now we don't have anywhere to work,” Abrams said.
When the tornado hit, there were nine firefighters in Little Rock's Fire Station No. 9, which became one of the most devastated areas of the city. They sheltered in the chief’s office as the tornado damaged their building.
“If I said it wasn’t scary, I’d be lying,” Capt. Ben Hammond said Saturday.
Once the tornado passed, the firefighters began working to help injured residents and to clear debris blocking their equipment.
“Once you address all the people you can see, then you’ve got to start looking for the people you can’t see,” he said.
The fire station has served as a shelter for neighbors amid fears that another storm was coming.
Associated Press reporters Harm Venhuizen in Belvidere, Illinois, and Andrew DeMillo in Little Rock, Arkansas, contributed to this story. Selsky reported from Salem, Oregon.