Tornadoes ripped through the southern state of Alabama and killed at least seven people, including five at a high school where students became pinned under debris when a roof collapsed, state officials said.
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Crews dug through piles of rubble beneath portable lights at Enterprise High School well into Thursday night, looking for other victims. In the chaotic hours after the storm, reports of the death toll varied wildly, at one point reaching as high as 18 dead.
With the search continuing, "the exact number is honestly not known," said John Pallas, the Coffee County emergency management director in Enterprise.
The burst of tornadoes was part of a larger line of thunderstorms and snowstorms that stretched from Minnesota to the Gulf Coast. Authorities blamed a tornado for the death of a 7-year-old girl in Missouri, and twisters were reported in Kansas.
A tornado damaged the Sumter Regional Hospital in Americus in southwest Georgia, hospital spokesman Ed Farr said. The state emergency management agency reported injuries and two deaths there, but Farr said he could not confirm that because the hospital was busy moving patients.
The storm struck the Alabama high school around 1:15 p.m. Thursday, and state emergency management spokeswoman Yasamie Richardson said some students were still trapped three hours later.
Erin Garcia, a 17-year-old student, said students had gathered in hallways around 11 a.m. as a precaution. School officials wanted to send them home around 1 p.m., she said, but the weather turned bad and sirens wailed.
Then, she said, the lights went out.
"I was just sitting there praying the whole time," she said.
After the storm passed, she found the hallway she was in was spared, but a roof and wall collapsed on students in another hallway.
"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," Garcia said.
More than 50 people were hospitalized as the violent storm front crossed the state. One person died elsewhere in Enterprise and one in rural Millers Ferry, where a separate storm wrecked mobile homes, Richardson said.
Officials opened shelters for those whose homes were damaged. The state sent in about 100 National Guardsmen, along with emergency personnel, lights and generators.
Officials said miscommunication at the scene was to blame for the varying death tolls. Gov. Bob Riley's spokesman, Jeff Emerson, said some victims may have been added twice because information was coming in from different officials.
"Any time you have a disaster of this magnitude, there is confusion at the scene," Richardson said. "As the situation calmed down, we were able to reevaluate and readjust the number."
As the system pushed eastward Thursday night, tornado watches remained in effect in eastern Alabama and were posted in Florida, Georgia and South Carolina, the AP says.
The tornadoes were the second to devastate a portion of the South this year. In early February, tornadoes ripped through a 30-mile path in central Florida, killing 21 and destroying hundreds of homes and businesses.
Also on Thursday, the central U.S. was dealing with heavy, wet snow and blizzard conditions that shut down hundreds of miles of interstate highways amid white-out conditions.
Schools closed in several states, and hundreds of flights were canceled. Two people were killed when their car overturned on a slick road in North Dakota, and one person died after shoveling snow in Nebraska.
Photo by The Associated Press