LOUISVILLE, Miss. — Ruth Bennett died clutching the last child left at her day care center as a tornado wiped the building off its foundation. A firefighter who came upon the body gently pulled the toddler from her arms.
“It makes you just take a breath now,” said next-door neighbor Kenneth Billingsley, who witnessed the scene at what was left of Ruth’s Child Care Center. “It makes you pay attention to life.”
Bennett, 53, was among at least 35 people killed in a two-day outbreak of twisters and other violent weather that pulverized homes from the Midwest to the Deep South.
As crews in Mississippi and Alabama turned from search-and-rescue efforts to cleanup, the South braced for a third round of potentially deadly weather. Tornadoes usually strike in the late afternoon and evening.
One of the hardest-hit areas in Monday evening’s barrage of twisters was Tupelo, Miss., where a gas station looked as if it had been stepped on by a giant.
Francis Gonzalez, who also owns a convenience store and Mexican restaurant attached to the service station, took cover with her three children and two employees in the store’s cooler as the roof over the gas pumps was reduced to aluminum shards.
On Tuesday, the growl of chain saws cut through the otherwise hazy morning in Tupelo. Massive trees, knocked over like toys, blocked roads. Neighbors helped one another cut away limbs.
By the government’s preliminary count, 11 tornadoes — including one that killed 15 people in Arkansas — struck the nation’s midsection Sunday, and at least 25 ravaged the South on Monday, the National Weather Service Storm Prediction Center said.
Among those killed was 21-year-old University of Alabama swimmer and dean’s list student John Servati, who was taking shelter in the basement of a Tuscaloosa home when a retaining wall collapsed on him.