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Rescue workers wait outside Enterprise High School after a tornado struck the school Thursday. Five deaths were reported at the school.
AP photo by Danny Tindell
Rescue workers wait outside Enterprise High School after a tornado struck the school Thursday. Five deaths were reported at the school.

State tornadoes kill 7; 5 dead at high school
No time to flee, students huddled as twister roared into Enterprise

By Bob Johnson
Associated Press Writer

ENTERPRISE — For a couple of hours, Enterprise High School students huddled in long hallways as ominous tornado weather rolled across Alabama on Thursday.

Around 1 p.m., said 17-year-old senior Erin Garcia, school officials wanted to send them home, but it was too late. Sirens began wailing, then the lights went out. A tornado began tearing the building apart.

"I was just sitting there praying the whole time," she said.

When the storm passed, students found that a wall and roof had collapsed on a hallway, burying classmates and staff in rubble. By Thursday night, state emergency officials said seven were killed statewide, five at Enterprise High School, where the scene was chaotic. Three deaths were also reported across the state line in Georgia.

"People didn't know where to go. They were trying to lead us out of the building. I kept seeing people with blood on their faces," Garcia said.

Alabama Emergency Management Agency spokeswoman Yasamie Richardson said one also died elsewhere in Enterprise and one in rural Millers Ferry, where a separate apparent twister wrecked mobile homes.

In the chaotic hours after the storm, reports about the death toll varied widely. At one point, state officials said as many as 18 people were dead. Richardson later said that miscommunication at the scene was to blame.

"Any time you have a disaster of this magnitude, there is confusion at the scene," Richardson said.

"The number could very well increase as the search effort continues through the night," she said.

More than 50 people were injured in Enterprise, about 90 miles south of Montgomery. Rescue workers dug into rubble at Enterprise High School in search of students unable to get out. Big search lights illuminated part of the school Thursday night where the search continued and a continuous stream of rescue workers filed in and out of the area.

Martha Rodriguez, a 15-year-old sophomore, said she had left the school about five minutes before the storm hit. When she returned, she joined others in shock to find the collapsed hall, where rescue workers were trying to reach those inside.

Stadium destroyed

"The stadium was destroyed and there were cars tipped over in the parking lot and trees were ripped out. There were trees and wood everywhere. It was just horrible," she said.

Debris littered the area around the school, with much of its roofing blown across the neighborhood. Windows were blown out of cars and buses in the school parking lot, and trees lay on top of some cars. One car was on top of another, and one was upside down.

Toni Kaminski, at Medical Center Enterprise, which also received storm damage, said about 45 patients were brought in, including some from the high school, and 17 were in the emergency department. But she said the injuries were mostly lacerations and stress-related. Ten others from Enterprise went to a hospital at Dothan.

The school "appears to have been right in the path," said Paul Duval, meteorologist with National Weather Service in Tallahassee, Fla., which monitors Southeast Alabama.

Trailer homes flipped

At Millers Ferry, about 60 miles west of Montgomery, trailer homes were flipped over and trees downed by a storm that caused "extensive damage," said Bernadine Williams in the Wilcox County Emergency Management Agency office.

Mack Andrews, who manages a grocery store in Camden, said customers described a scene of devastation at the community on a bend of the Alabama River.

"It's a big fishing area, with houses, mobile home lots. They told me it just leveled it," said Andrews. "It took them an hour to clear the road just to get out there."

Schools in many areas of Alabama closed or let students leave early as the storm front approached from the west, extending the length of the state.

Shelters opened in Enterprise for those whose homes were wrecked.

Gov. Bob Riley sent about 100 National Guardsmen, along with EMA personnel, lights and generators.

3 die in Georgia

The system passed Thursday night from Alabama into Southwest Georgia, hitting a hospital and causing at least three deaths, officials said.

In Sumter County, home of former President Carter, the main hospital received some storm damage and there were two fatalities and an undetermined number of injuries, said Buzz Weiss of the Georgia Emergency Management Agency.

It appeared that a tornado hit Sumter Regional Medical Center in Americus but officials were unsure whether the injured and the dead were inside the building at the time, Weiss said.

Farther north in Taylor County, there was one death reported and four injuries, Weiss said, but he had no details on exactly how the injuries occurred — just that they were storm-related.

Weiss said between 40 and 60 homes were damaged in Clay County, south of Muscogee along the Chattahoochee River on the Alabama line.

The burst of tornadoes was part of a larger line of thunderstorms and snowstorms that stretched from Minnesota to the Gulf Coast. Authorities blamed a tornado for the death of a 7-year-old girl in Missouri and twisters also were reported in Kansas.

President Bush was briefed on the tornadoes by senior staff and called Riley and Missouri Gov. Matt Blunt, White House spokeswoman Dana Perrino said.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency was working with officials in both states, she said.

As the system pushed eastward Thursday night, tornado watches remained in effect in eastern Alabama and also were posted in Florida, Georgia and South Carolina.

The tornadoes were the second to devastate a portion of the South this year. In early February, tornadoes ripped through a 30-mile path in central Florida, killing 21 and destroying hundreds of homes and businesses.

Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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