Tornado Disaster: It came like a jet plane - nothing in science could halt it

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DEREK SINNES stands by the empty space that was once occupied by his trailer home. Yesterday, all that remained were the cinder blocks that used to hold it off the ground. I ask him what became of his home of 21 years and he gestures helplessly to the tangled mess before him.

His used to be the first trailer at the entrance of the Lakeshore Mobile Home Park just south of Wichita, Kansas. The park was among the multiple devastation zones struck by the tornadoes that ripped through parts of this state and Oklahoma late on Monday.

In most houses, hurricane warnings would have sounded: the hurricane sirens linked to the government system, or the weather channel radios, which switch on automatically.

Oklahoma has an average of 52 tornadoes a year and more than 200 people have been killed since 1950. But few of them have been of this intensity. There have been only fifty tornadoes categorised as F-5 ("incredible") since 1950 and even fewer F-6s, officially designated by the government as "inconceivable".

Although scientists know in some detail how and why tornadoes form, there is much that they do not know about why sometimes apparently similar conditions produce different sizes of tornado. And timing is still the crucial factor: storms form very quickly and tornadoes form out of them in minutes. That often leaves little time to warn residents.

After Monday's tornado, Mr Sinnes's plot is the only corner of the park that could be described as clean. Nature had vacuumed it for him and yesterday, like hundreds of other residents, he had come back to see what he could retrieve of his belongings. Allowed in by the US army just for the afternoon, they meandered in a numbed daze up and down what used to be the trailer park streets, pushing blue wheelie bins and filling them with whatever they could find.

For Mr Sinnes, 46, it was not much. "I found my dog down that way," he says, pointing to a blanket-covered body. But he is pleased because he has found his three hunting guns. In his hand, he grasps a small plastic bag of muddy cutlery.

The park resembled an enormous rubbish tip. A few trailers - out of the original hundred or so - are still standing, their sides punctured by wreckage propelled through the air by wind. Most had been picked up, mangled and dumped in great piles of unrecognisable debris. There is a smell of timber in the air, either from the snapped branches of eucalyptus trees or the mashed wood of walls and floors.

The trees offer astonishing testimony to what happened here. Those still vertical have been snapped into splinters. Many have parts of the trailers, shiny in yesterday's sunshine, wrapped around their limbs like sheets of liquorice. It is as if some monstrous machine descended upon this small place from the skies on Monday; it whirred and it chomped and then it spat everything out again. Some said the sound was like a jumbo jet or a train, coming through their houses.

A lake next to the park is filled with debris, including one whole trailer that had been tossed through the air and now lies upside down in the water. Steve Alterton, 39, who has five children, can see most of what remains of his home - a massive pile of mess dissected by a giant tree that crashed on top of it. His neighbour's home is one that has gone completely. "We think it's out there in the lake somewhere," he says.

One eight-year-old girl died here. Most of the park's residents heeded the sirens and rushed to the small shelter built at the park's edge precisely for storms like this. Mr Alterton was not so sensible.

The sirens had stopped for a while, he explains, before starting up again and he thought the tornadoes would pass the park by. But he got it wrong. "It was like a train in a tunnel, the loudest sound I can imagine. We tried to make it down the hall to the back door but then it just vanished on us. The walls and the ceilings started to fall on us, with the freezer and the fridge, and we hid under the mattress." He points to the mattress lying on top of the mangled pile of what was once his trailer.

Zelpha Collins, 81, made it to the shelter about two minutes before impact. Her daughter, Cindy, had rushed from across town to make sure she made it to the shelter. Yesterday, mother and daughter were rummaging through the wreckage stuffing anything they could find in the back of her old white Lincoln. Anyone can see that this car is never going to move again, but Mrs Collins has not absorbed this fact yet. People can still laugh even amid such devastation. Cindy yelps with joy when she unearths her mother's microwave. The bacon that she had begun to defrost for a sandwich just before they ran for cover is still sitting on a plate inside.

"It helps to find things," explains Cindy. At this moment another young man who has come over to help - his trailer has also been destroyed - finds an old faded photograph, ripped from its wooden frame. It is a sepia picture of Mrs Collins' deceased husband and his mother. She cradles it, tears in her eyes, a precious part of her life rescued from the misery.

"If my father was still here he would have sat the storm out. He never did believe in running from tornadoes. This time he wouldn't have made it," said Cindy. The floor of Mrs Collins' trailer is still there, a purple Hoover standing uselessly on the sodden carpet. Cans of food and ketchup bottles are strewn all around.

"You have to laugh, I guess," says Mr Alterton, a carpenter. He and his family had come out of the rubble alive and more or less unscathed. Meanwhile, his son suddenly yelped from behind a pile of mud. He is holding high a home-made potato gun he had made for the scouts.

Everyone here has been given until nightfall to gather what they can. Then they must leave and will not be allowed to return until soldiers and engineers have made the park safe, fixing gas leaks and picking up the tangle of electricity wires.

Mr Alterton will not be coming back. "We won't be living in a mobile home again," he says with a grin. "Never again."