LEXINGTON, N.C. — A day after deadly tornadoes struck the Southeast, survivors looked for what they could salvage, huddled in loved ones’ hospital rooms and shared stories of how they made it through the furious storms.
Some were also mourning. People in a hard-hit North Carolina neighborhood marked the spot where a 3-year-old girl’s body was found with an American flag. The little girl and her grandmother were among six killed in three states Wednesday.
The two were alone in the small house in a rural area south of Lexington when the storm hit, leaving behind only the foundation. The house’s splintered remains were scattered hundreds of feet. The family’s Dodge minivan ended up propped against a nearby tree, its windows smashed and roof caved in.
Firefighters and volunteers searched for the girl, whose name wasn’t immediately released, for more than two hours before finding her buried in a pile of shattered lumber and furniture.
“She was just beautiful — big blue eyes and so sweet,” said Maegan Chriscoe, whose daughter played with the young victim.
Elsewhere, the storms killed three people in South Carolina, and a Georgia motorist was died when a tree crushed his SUV north of Atlanta.
Dozens more were injured across the region, scores of buildings were damaged and thousands were without power. Meteorologists confirmed Thursday that tornadoes had struck Louisiana and Alabama a day earlier and twisters were suspected in Mississippi, Georgia and the Carolinas.
“It looked like the ‘Wizard of Oz,’” Henry Taylor said, describing a funnel cloud outside his home near Rock Hill, S.C. “It was surreal, and for a moment, a split second, you say to yourself ‘This ain’t real,’ then reality sets in, and you know it is.”
The 50-year-old Taylor said he and his wife sought refuge in a closet as the storm roared. Part of his roof was torn off, windows were blown out and trees had been snapped in two. But he and his wife escaped injury.
“I held my wife closely in the closet and I prayed. I said, ‘Oh my God, this is it. I’m going to be buried in the debris. We’re going to die,’” Taylor said Thursday, wiping back tears.
Jerry Neely said his wife, Janet, was home alone and fled to the bathroom for safety. The tornado lifted the bathtub, pinning her underneath, Jerry Neely said by phone from his wife’s hospital room Thursday.
“It’s going to be hard to overcome this. I don’t know what we’re going to do. It’s just so hard,” Jerry Neely said, adding that his wife will recover from her injuries.
The sheriff for surrounding York County asked South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley for state assistance in cleaning up the debris. Authorities blocked roads leading into the area and only allowed emergency workers and power crews in.
Ideal conditions for severe weather were created when a cold front stretching from the Gulf of Mexico to the Northeast collided with unseasonably warm air, forecasters said. Temperatures dropped in some areas from the low 70s to the 50s as the front passed.
Still, it’s not unusual for the region to have severe storms in November because temperatures can fluctuate wildly, said National Weather Service meteorologist Neil Dixon.
In Alabama, the National Weather Service confirmed that tornadoes hit communities in the western and central parts of the state and continued to assess a suspected twister that demolished mobile homes at a pair of housing parks near Auburn University. The campus was spared major damage.
It was the worst bout of weather for the state since about 250 people were killed during a tornado outbreak in April the state.
Back in Lexington, Marshall Chriscoe described running for cover in his house, which is across the street from where the little girl and her grandmother died. When he got a text message from his girlfriend that a tornado was headed his way, he grabbed her 4-year-old daughter and they huddled under a heavy roll-top desk.
“The house started shaking and things were falling,” said Chriscoe, 24, who’s Maegan Chriscoe’s brother. “It only lasted 15, maybe 30 seconds. I stood up and realized I was standing on an incline.”
The small house he rents had been lifted off its foundation. After finding his girlfriend’s Chihuahua hiding under a bed, he went outside to find a scene of devastation.
Chriscoe said he and other neighbors quickly found the gravely injured grandmother in the debris of her home.
“She was talking and moving her arms,” he said. “She just kept yelling, ‘Get me up!’ But we were afraid to move her before the rescue squad got there.”
About a quarter mile away, Richard Hedrick worked to salvage what he could from his ruined childhood home. He said his parents sought shelter in their basement and suffered minor injuries when their brick house was lifted up and dropped back in place.
Still, Hedrick felt lucky that they were OK.
“Mama always said she wanted a sunroom,” he said jokingly when asked if they planned to rebuild. “This was the home place, lots of memories here. But next week, we’ll have Thanksgiving dinner somewhere else and we’ll be truly thankful.”