Tornadoes tear through several states, killing at least five students; blizzards blanket Plains, Midwest Tornadoes ripped through Alabama and killed at least seven people March 1, including five at Enterprise High School, where students became pinned under debris when a roof collapsed, state officials said. As night fell, crews dug through piles of rubble beneath portable lights at the high school, looking for other victims.
“The number could very well increase as the search effort continues through the night,” state emergency management spokeswoman Yasamie Richardson said shortly after the tragedy.
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 also were reported in Kansas, while blizzard conditions closed highways and shut schools in the Midwest and Great Plains.
The storm struck Enterprise at about 1:15 p.m., and Richardson said some students were still trapped three hours later. Erin Garcia, a 17-year-old senior, 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.
“It was scary. It sounded like a bunch of people trying to beat the wall down. It was complete chaos out in the hallway,” she said. “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.”
More than 50 people were hospitalized as the violent storm front crossed the state. Two died elsewhere in Enterprise and one in rural Millers Ferry, where a separate storm wrecked mobile homes, Richardson said.
The high school in Enterprise, about 75 miles south of Montgomery, “appears to have been right in the path,” said Paul Duval, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Tallahassee, Fla., which monitors southeast Alabama.
Martha Rodriguez, a 15-year-old sophomore, said she had left the school about five minutes before the storm hit. When she returned, a hall at the school had collapsed, she said.
“The stadium was destroyed, and there were cars tipped over in the parking lot and trees were ripped out. There were trees and wood everywhere. It was just horrible,” she said.
At Millers Ferry, 66 miles west of Montgomery, trailer homes were flipped over and trees downed, said Bernadine Williams in the Wilcox County emergency management office.
Several school systems across Alabama closed or dismissed students early as the storm front approached from the west, extending the length of the state.
“The clouds were so dark that all the lights out here came on,” said Walter Thornton, who works at the airport in Enterprise.
President Bush, who visited New Orleans on Thursday, was briefed on the tornadoes by senior staff and called Alabama Gov. Bob Riley and Missouri Gov. Matt Blunt, White House spokeswoman Dana Perrino said aboard Air Force One.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency was working with officials in both states, she said.
In Caulfield, Mo., resident Rick Jarvis heard the storm ripping through his gas station around dawn. His home next door suffered minor damage, but the twister, described by witnesses as a fat black column, shredded the business, ripping down its roof and back wall.
“It sounded like a herd of horses tearing up stuff. When I came out, it was done,” said Jarvis, 48.
Farther north, heavy, wet snow and blizzard conditions hit the Plains and Midwest on Thursday, shutting down hundreds of miles of interstate highways.
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 snowplows were pulled off the roads in western Minnesota because of strong wind and heavy snow.
The storm moved into Iowa with rain and sleet but changed to snow around dawn.
The western part of the state was hit with a blizzard that dropped visibility to a quarter-mile or less for at least three hours. By midday, as much as a foot of snow covered the town of Atlantic.
A blizzard also hit eastern Nebraska, with a foot of snow in the Omaha area and up to 15 inches of snow expected in some areas before it dies off today.
Pat Sinnott, who owns the Pump ‘N Munch Too convenience store in Council Bluffs, Iowa, near the Nebraska line, said motorists had been pulling off Interstate 80 and using her phone to call their bosses and say they wouldn’t be coming in.
With up to 18 inches of snow expected in parts of Iowa, Gov. Chet Culver issued a disaster declaration, clearing the way for state aid, and authorities warned people to stay off the roads.
More than 140 school districts canceled classes Thursday in Minnesota even before the heavy snow arrived.
By March 2, snowfall totals were expected to be a foot or more in southern and central Minnesota, where up to 2 feet fell last week. In northeastern Minnesota, the totals could hit 2 feet. The weather service warned of blowing snow and possible blizzard conditions in the countryside.
Flights were canceled around the region. At the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, airport officials were preparing for serious disruptions after airlines grounded about 400 flights, a number that was expected to grow.