WYNNE, Arkansas: Storms that dropped possibly dozens of tornadoes killed at least 21 people in small towns and big cities across the South and Midwest, tearing a path through the Arkansas capital, collapsing the roof of a packed concert venue in Illinois, and stunning people throughout the region Saturday with the damage’s scope.
Confirmed or suspected tornadoes in at least eight states destroyed homes and businesses, splintered trees and laid waste to neighborhoods across a broad swath of the country. The dead included seven in one Tennessee county, four in the small town of Wynne, Arkansas, three in Sullivan, Indiana, and four in Illinois.
Other deaths from the storms that hit Friday night into Saturday were reported in Alabama and Mississippi, along with one near Little Rock, Arkansas, where city officials said more than 2,600 buildings were in a tornado’s path.
Residents of Wynne, a community of about 8,000 people 50 miles (80 kilometers) west of Memphis, Tennessee, woke Saturday to find the high school’s roof shredded and its windows blown out. Huge trees lay on the ground, their stumps reduced to nubs. Broken walls, windows and roofs pocked homes and businesses.
Debris and memories of regular life lay scattered inside the shells of homes and on lawns: clothing, insulation, roofing paper, toys, splintered furniture, a pickup truck with its windows shattered.
Ashley Macmillan said she, her husband and their children huddled with their dogs in a small bathroom as a tornado passed, “praying and saying goodbye to each other, because we thought we were dead.” A falling tree seriously damaged their home, but no one in the family was hurt.
“We could feel the house shaking, we could hear loud noises, dishes rattling. And then it just got calm,” she said.
Recovery was already underway, with workers using chainsaws and bulldozers to clear the area. Utility crews worked to restore power.
At least seven people died in Tennessee’s McNairy County, east of Memphis along the Mississippi border, said David Leckner, the mayor of Adamsville.
“The majority of the damage has been done to homes and residential areas,” Leckner said, adding that although it appeared all people were accounted for, crews were going door to door to be sure.
Gov. Bill Lee drove to the county Saturday to survey the damage, noting that the storm came days after six people were killed in a school shooting in Nashville.
“But it looks like your community has done what Tennessean communities do, and that is rally and respond,” he said.
Jeffrey Day said he called his daughter after seeing on the news that their community of Adamsville was being hit. Huddled in a closet with her two-year-old son as the storm passed over, she answered the phone screaming.
“She kept asking me, ‘What do I do, daddy?’” Day said. “I didn’t know what to say.”
In Belvidere, Illinois, part of the roof of the Apollo Theatre collapsed as about 260 people were attending a heavy metal concert. Some of them pulled a 50-year-old man from the rubble, but he was dead when emergency workers arrived. Officials said 40 other people were hurt, including two with life-threatening injuries.
“They dragged someone out from the rubble, and I sat with him and I held his hand and I was (telling him), ‘It’s going to be OK.’ I didn’t really know much else what to do,” concertgoer Gabrielle Lewellyn told WTVO-TV.
On Saturday, crews were cleaning up around the Apollo, with forklifts pulling away loose bricks. Business owners picked up shards of glass and covered shattered windows.
In Crawford County, Illinois, three people were killed and eight others injured after a tornado hit around New Hebron, Bill Burke, the county board chair, said.
Sheriff Bill Rutan said 60 to 100 families were displaced.
“We’ve had emergency crews digging people out of their basements because the house is collapsed on top of them, but luckily they had that safe space to go to,” Rutan said at a news conference.
Illinois state Rep. Adam Niemerg called the tornado “catastrophic.”
That tornado was not far from where three people were killed in Indiana’s Sullivan County, about 95 miles (150 kilometers) southwest of Indianapolis.
Sullivan Mayor Clint Lamb said at a news conference that an area south of the county seat of about 4,000 “is essentially unrecognizable right now” and that several people were rescued from rubble overnight. There were reports of as many as 12 people injured, he said, and search-and-rescue teams combed damaged areas.
“I’m really, really shocked there isn’t more as far as human issues,” he said, adding that recovery “is going to be a very long process.”
In the Little Rock area, at least one person was killed and more than 50 were hurt, some critically.
The National Weather Service said that tornado was a high-end EF3 twister with wind speeds up to 165 mph (265 kph) and a path as long as 25 miles (40 kilometers).
Masoud Shahed-Ghaznavi was lunching at home when it roared through his neighborhood, causing him to hide in the laundry room as sheetrock fell on his head and windows shattered. When he emerged, the house was mostly rubble.
“I see everything around me is sky,” Shahed-Ghaznavi recalled. He barely slept Friday night.
“When I closed my eyes, I couldn’t sleep, imagined I was here,” he said Saturday outside his home.
Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders declared a state of emergency and activated the National Guard to help local responders.
Another suspected tornado killed a woman in northern Alabama’s Madison County, county official Mac McCutcheon said. And in northern Mississippi’s Pontotoc County, officials confirmed one death and four injuries.
Tornadoes also caused damage in eastern Iowa and broke windows northeast of Peoria, Illinois.
The storms struck just hours after President Joe Biden visited Rolling Fork, Mississippi, where tornadoes last week destroyed parts of town.
It could take days to determine the exact number of tornadoes, said Bill Bunting, chief of forecast operations at the Storm Prediction Center. There were also hundreds of reports of large hail and damaging winds, he said.
“That’s a quite active day,” he said. “But that’s not unprecedented.”
More than 530,000 homes and businesses in the affected area lacked power at midday Saturday, over 200,000 of them in Ohio, according to PowerOutage.us.
The sprawling storm system also brought wildfires to the southern Plains, with nearly 100 new ones reported Friday in Oklahoma, according to the state forest service.
At least 32 people were injured in the fires, according to the Oklahoma State Department of Health. There were reports of more than 40 homes destroyed around the state.
The storms also caused blizzard conditions in the Upper Midwest.
A threat of tornadoes and hail remained for the Northeast including in parts of Pennsylvania and New York.