PLEASANT GROVE, Ala. (AP) -- Massive tornadoes tore atown-flattening streak across the South, killing at least 266people in six states and forcing rescuers to carry some survivorsout on makeshift stretchers of splintered debris. Two of Alabama'smajor cities were among the places devastated by the deadliesttwister outbreak in nearly 40 years.
As day broke Thursday, people in hard-hit areas surveyedobliterated homes and debris-strewn streets. Some told of deadlywinds whipping through within seconds of weather alerts broadcastduring the storms Wednesday afternoon and evening.
'It happened so fast it was unbelievable,' said Jerry Stewart,a 63-year-old retired firefighter who was picking through theremains of his son's wrecked home in Pleasant Grove, a suburb ofBirmingham. 'They said the storm was in Tuscaloosa and it would behere in 15 minutes. And before I knew it, it was here.'
He and his wife, along with their daughter and twograndchildren, survived by hiding under their front porch. Friendsdown the street who did the same weren't so lucky -- Stewart said hepulled out the bodies of two neighbors whose home was ripped offits foundation.
Alabama officials confirmed 180 deaths, while there were 33 inMississippi, 33 in Tennessee, 14 in Georgia, five in Virginia andone in Kentucky.
President Barack Obama said he would visit Alabama Friday toview damage and meet with the governor and families devastated bythe storms. Obama has already expressed condolences by phone toGov. Robert Bentley and approved his request for emergency federalassistance.
The National Weather Service's Storm Prediction Center inNorman, Okla., said it received 137 tornado reports into Wednesdaynight. The storms forced authorities in some places into makeshiftcommand posts after their headquarters lost power or were damaged,
and an Alabama nuclear plant was using backup generators to coolunits that were shut down.
A tornado expert at the Oklahoma center said it appears some ofthe tornadoes were as wide as a mile and likely packed a wallopthat only 1 in 100 twisters ever reach. It could be days, however,before scientists make an official determination.
Some of the worst damage was in Tuscaloosa, a city of more than83,000 that is home to the University of Alabama. Neighborhoodsthere were leveled by a massive tornado that barreled through lateWednesday afternoon and was caught on video by a tower-mounted newscamera.
'When I looked back, I just saw trees and stuff coming by,'said Mike Whitt, a resident at DCH Regional Medical Center who ranfrom the hospital's parking deck when the wind started swirling andhe heard a roar.
On Thursday morning, he walked through the neighborhood next tothe hospital, home to a mix of students and townspeople, looking atdozens of homes without roofs. Household items were scattered onthe ground -- a drum, running shoes, insulation, towels, and ashampoo bottle. Streets were impassable, the pavement strewn withtrees, pieces of houses and cars with their windows blown out.
Dr. David Hinton was working at the hospital when the tornadohit. He and his wife had to walk several blocks to get to theirhouse, which was destroyed. Several houses down, he helped pullthree students from the rubble. One was dead and two were badlyinjured. He and others used pieces of debris as makeshiftstretchers to carry them to an ambulance.
'We just did the best we could to get them out and get themstabilized and get them to help,' he said. 'I don't know whathappened to them.'
Back from an aerial tour Thursday morning, Tuscaloosa MayorWalter Maddox said the tornado tore a streak of 'utterdestruction' through the city. There were at least 36 people deadin the city's police jurisdiction, and searches continue for themissing.
'We have neighborhoods that have been basically removed fromthe map,' he said.
Because the city's emergency management building was destroyed,authorities are using Bryant-Denny Stadium at the University ofAlabama as a command post.
University officials said there didn't appear to be significantdamage on campus, but the school canceled final exams and postponedcommencement from May until August. Dozens of students and localswere staying at a 125-bed shelter in the campus recreation center.
The storm system spread destruction from Texas to New York,where dozens of roads were flooded or washed out. The governors ofAlabama, Mississippi and Georgia issued emergency declarations forparts of their states.
The National Weather Service said the deaths were the most sincea tornado outbreak killed 315 people in 1974.
A research meteorologist at the Oklahoma prediction center, Dr.Harold Brooks, said the average tornado is on the ground for acouple of miles, measures a couple hundred yards wide and packs topwinds of 100 mph. He said most reasonably built structures canwithstand storms like those, but the ones that hit Wednesdayappeared much stronger.
'There's a pretty good chance some of these were a mile wide,on the ground for tens of miles and had winds speeds over 200 mph.
Well, that's obviously a bigger problem,' he said.
Brooks said there is some evidence that a single tornado couldhave started at the Mississippi-Alabama state line before plowingthrough Birmingham and Tuscaloosa and into Georgia. If that's thecase it could be among the longest-tracking tornadoes in history.
In Alabama, where as many as a million people were withoutpower, Bentley said 2,000 national guard troops had been activatedand were helping to search devastated areas for people stillmissing. He said the National Weather Service and forecasters did agood job of alerting people, but there is only so much that can bedone to deal with powerful tornadoes a mile wide.
The storm also forced the Browns Ferry nuclear power plant about30 miles west of Huntsville to shut down its three units because ofdamage to the utility's transmission lines, the Tennessee ValleyAuthority said. Diesel generators were being used to cool thereactors. The safety systems operated as needed and the emergencyevent was classified as the lowest of four levels, the NuclearRegulatory Commission said.
In Smithville in northeastern Mississippi, the police station,post office, city hall, an industrial park with several furnituremanufacturing facilities and a grocery store were among dozens ofbuildings ripped apart. A church was cut in half, and pieces of tin were wrapped high around the legs of a blue water tower.
Jessica Monaghan, 24, walked through the wreckage with her9-month-old son, Slade Scott, strapped to her back, and the baby'sfather, 23-year-old Tyler Scott, by her side.
Their house was still standing, though the home belonging toTyler Scott's mother was flattened. He was at work -- he's afirefighter in nearby Tupelo -- and Monaghan was at home watching TVwhen broadcasters warned the town could be hit within 10 minutes.
By then, she said, the storm was there.
'The baby was already in the closet. I grabbed the cat and gotin the closet, too,' Monaghan said. 'You could just feel thepressure. It really was like a freight train.'
In Georgia, parts of Trenton were heavily damaged. Lisa Rice,owner of a tanning salon there, survived a tornado by climbing intoa tanning bed with her two daughters, 19-year-old Stormy and21-year-old Sky.
She said they were working in the salon about 6 p.m. when herhusband called to report a tornado warning. She saw the dark skyoutside and some debris flying.
'I'd already told the girls which bed we were going to climbinto if we need to. So, we got in it and closed it on top of us,'Rice said. 'Sky said, `we're going to die.' But, I said, no, justpray.'
She said they could hear the cracking of the roof coming off,and the feel the air rushing over. The 30-second ordeal left thesalon in ruins, but the family was happy to be safe.
'We're still alive,' she said. 'We have a lot to be thankfulfor.'