Dozens killed by tornadoes ripping across America

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A desperate search for survivors was continuing last night after a series of storms ripped through much of the southern and eastern United States, killing at least 33 people, injuring dozens more and leaving hundreds homeless.

A desperate search for survivors was continuing last night after a series of storms ripped through much of the southern and eastern United States, killing at least 33 people, injuring dozens more and leaving hundreds homeless.

The storms, including several tornadoes, swept through more than half a dozen states overnight on Sunday, reaching from southern Louisiana up into Pennsylvania. Alabama and Tennessee were the worst hit, with a total of 26 people being killed in those two states. A number of small towns were devastated.

"It's mass destruction, death," said Ken Morgan, an emergency services officer in Oliver Springs, near Knoxville, Tennessee. The neighbouring hamlet of Mossy Grove was said to be "completely devastated" and many people were unaccounted for.

The storms – created by cold autumnal air sweeping eastwards and clashing with unseasonally warm, moist air from the Gulf of Mexico – formed in a series of tightly wound coils. Tornadoes flattened dozens of homes throughout the region and left tens of thousands of people without power. Winds reached 140mph in Tennessee and the storms carried torrential rain and golf-ball-sized hail.

In the Ohio town of Van Wert, one tornado ripped apart two cinemas – one of which had just finished showing the film Santa Clause 2. Raymond Moore said his 22-year-old daughter was leaving the cinema when she saw the tornado and ran back in. She was one of the customers who were rushed into the lobby and lavatories, considered to be stronger. "She watched the roof come right off the building," he said.

In Carbon Hill, Alabama, storms sent trees crashing down on small houses and mobile homes in the night. At least seven people were killed. "I reckon about a third of the town is gone," said Terry Murray, part of a rescue crew.

The Walker County deputy coroner, Bob Green, was at the scene where two women were found dead. "They were laying down off the side of a road," he said. "It was bad. Carbon Hill had a bad time."

Close to Carbon Hill, Sheryl Wakefield's home survived the tornado but five nearby homes of relatives were destroyed. Her sister, Audrey Alexander, 72, and Alexander's daughter, Susan, died in the wreckage of their mobile home, its metal frame twisted around a broken tree. "It took a long time for them to find them," said Mrs Wakefield.

She said her son, his wife and their three daughters had got into the Wakefields' concrete storm cellar and were not harmed, but their home was destroyed. "My son doesn't even know where his home is. It's gone. It's just gone," she said.

Late on Saturday and early on Sunday, twisters skipped across western and middle Tennessee, killing three people.

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