Yazoo City, Miss. — One prayed to God under a communion table as his church was blown to pieces around him.
Another was on the phone with a meteorologist when the tornado threw him against a cinderblock wall that held just long enough to save his life. A coroner nearly became a victim himself when the twister flipped his truck four times; later he went out in his hospital gown to help identify bodies.
At least 10 people were killed when the tornado ripped through the rural Mississippi countryside and two deaths in Alabama have been blamed on storms there. It’s the stories told by survivors on Sunday that show how much higher the toll could have been.
Dale Thrasher, 60, had been alone in Hillcrest Baptist Church when the tornado hit Saturday, ripping away wood and metal until all that was left was rubble, Thrasher and the table he had climbed under as he prayed for protection.
“The whole building caved in,” he said. “But me and that table were still there.”
Sunday was sunny and breezy as Thrasher and other members of the Yazoo City church dug through the debris and pulled out a few chairs and other items. One found a hymnal opened to the song, “Till the Storm Passes By.”
Hundreds of homes also were damaged in the storm, which carved a path of devastation from the Louisiana line to east-central Mississippi, and at least three dozen people were hurt. Rescuers spread out Sunday to find anyone who might be trapped, while survivors returned to demolished homes to salvage what they could and bulldoze the rubble.
“This tornado was enormous,” said Gov. Haley Barbour, who grew up in Yazoo County, a county of about 28,000 people known for blues, catfish and cotton.
Tornadoes also were reported in Louisiana, Arkansas and Alabama. The storm system tracked northeastward, downing trees in northwest Georgia and damaging an elementary school roof in Darlington, S.C., late Sunday.
Mississippi’s Choctaw County suffered the most confirmed deaths: five, including a baby and two other children. On Sunday the air there was filled with the buzz of chain saws, the rumbling of tractors and the scent of splintered pine trees.
National Weather Service meteorologist Marc McAlister said the tornado had winds of 160 miles an hour and left a path of destruction at least 50 miles long.
All that remained of Sullivan’s Crossroads Grocery was a pile of cinderblocks and some jars of pickled eggs and pigs’ feet. But owner Ron Sullivan, his wife and four other people rode out the storm there and suffered only some cuts and bruises.
Sullivan had been on the phone, describing the weather conditions to a meteorologist, when the line went dead and the twister hit, tearing the wooden roof off the store and hurling Sullivan into a cinderblock wall.
“I was levitated and flew 15 feet over there to the back wall,” he said. “The only reason I wasn’t killed was the wall was still there. After I hit it, it collapsed.”
A steel fuel storage tank, about 10 feet long, was uprooted by the twister and rolled into the store, coming to rest against a freezer. Hiding on the other side of the freezer was Sullivan’s wife.