SILVER CITY, Miss. – Nothing remained of William Barnes’ home in the tiny western Mississippi town of Silver City after a killer tornado tore it off its foundations. He stood in disbelief Saturday as he surveyed the lot where he'd lived for 20 years, twisted debris of cinder blocks and mangled wood siding scattered across where his home once stood.
“We lost everything but got out alive,” he said, holding his young granddaughter in his arms.
Stories were similar throughout the town of just over 200 people, about 60 miles (97 kilometers) northwest of the state capital of Jackson. Devastating accounts of utter destruction, incredible survival and tragic deaths followed Friday’s twister that killed at least 25 in Mississippi and one in Alabama as it surged nearly 170 miles (274 kilometers) across the Deep South.
Residents sat in folding chairs outside the mud-splattered ruins of beloved family homes as people came by in all-terrain vehicles and golf carts packed with bottles of water to distribute. A line of cars was parked on the road from first responders and family who had driven in to help with clean up and rescue efforts.
Remnants of the storm and reminders of its ferocity were everywhere.
A child’s Shrek doll lay face down in the dirt next to a pile of broken plywood and branches, feet from a busted-up refrigerator with its back torn clean off. Limbs from several fallen trees blocked a school bus. Outside the wall of what used to be a house, a bike lay upside down in another pile of debris.
Lakeisha Clincy, Yaclyn James and Shaquetin Burnett had just returned to their Silver City home from an evening out in the nearby town of Belzoni when the tornado struck. They parked in their driveway and opened the car doors, but it was too late.
“I saw houses flying everywhere,” Burnett said. “The house on the corner was spinning.”
They closed the car doors and waited.
“It only lasted about three minutes, but it was the longest three minutes I’ve ever had,” Clincy said. “This I will never forget.”
They exited the car to find their house destroyed. Officials later transported them by bus to a hotel, where they fell asleep sometime after 4 a.m. They didn’t know where they would sleep Saturday night.
Christin George said her parents and grandmother narrowly escaped when the tornado blew out the windows and ripped off part of the roof of their home.
She said her parents huddled behind a door that hadn’t been hung yet and threw a blanket over her grandmother to shield themselves from the glass that “shot down the hallway and peppered everybody.”
“Everything else around them is just gone,” she said, at times clutching her hand to her chest. “They were lucky. That’s all there is to it.”
Christine Chinn, who’s lived in Silver City her whole life, sought refuge with her husband and son in the hallway, covering themselves with a blanket as they desperately sought to protect themselves. After the storm, the roof was gone on the home where she's lived for 17 years and cars were upended in her yard.
“It just got calm and all of sudden everything just — like a big old train or something coming through,” she said, adding that much of her belongings weren't salvageable.
She said she was very scared and had never experienced anything like it.
That same fear gripped residents of Rolling Fork, about 30 miles (48 kilometers) away, as the twister flatted the town of just under 2,000 people.
Derrick Brady Jr., 9, said he tried to cover his 7-year-old sister Kylie Carter with his body as the tornado moved over their home. He had to dive in the bathtub as his mom pushed herself up against the bathroom door, trying to keep it closed. He described the sensation of feeling both pushed and pulled by the twister's force.
“I was scared, but I was brave that time,” he said. “We had to say our own prayers in our heads.”
Wanda Barfield, grandmother of Derrick and Kylie, said she was running around the devastated town Friday night and Saturday trying to account for loved ones. After the storm hit, she kept calling family members’ cell phones, but no one answered. She found her sister-in-law dead amid the wreckage, she said.
She said her family is doing the best they can to survive.
“Our life is more important than anything else. You can get a job, money, car, clothes, shoes — you can get all that,” she said. “For me, and for my house, we’re going to serve the Lord.”
James Hancock was helping with search and rescue efforts in Rolling Fork late Friday as the storm tore through town.
He was part of a crew who forced open a store that community members started using to care for injured people. It took two hours for ambulances to maneuver through debris-filled streets to get to the store to start tending to them, he said. As he moved from the ruins of one home to the next, he said he could hear people crying out in the dark.
“You could just hear people needing help, and it was just devastating,” he said.
Rush contributed from Portland, Oregon. Associated Press reporters Emily Wagster Pettus and Leah Willingham contributed from Rolling Fork, Mississippi and Charleston, West Virginia.
Michael Goldberg and Claire Rush are corps members for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.