/ 2 March 2007

US tornadoes kill 11, school collapses

Tornadoes ripped across the Southern and Midwestern United States on Thursday and killed at least 11 people, most of whom had been taking shelter in a high school that collapsed in southern Alabama.

Five people died when the school building was torn open by the twister in the southern Alabama town of Enterprise, state Emergency Management Agency spokesperson Yasmie Richardson said.

The agency had said earlier that 17 people had died in the town, but later lowered the statewide toll to seven, blaming initial miscommunication among officials.

”Enterprise has suffered major and widespread damage,” said Governor Bob Riley, who declared a state of emergency and sent 100 National Guard troops to the town.

Riley said rescue workers were still moving debris to search for survivors as night fell.

In Georgia, storms that swept through the south-western part of the state killed at least three people and caused an unknown number of injuries, said Buzz Weiss, spokesperson for the Georgia Emergency Management Agency.

Two were killed in Americus, Georgia, when the Sumter Regional Hospital was hit by an apparent tornado. Weiss said it wasn’t known whether the two were patients.

”Sumter County has apparently lost of all its ambulances and rescue vehicles,” Weiss said.

The third fatality was in Taylor County, which is just a bit north of Americus, Weiss added.

In the Missouri town of Caulfield, a tornado killed a girl in a mobile home, damaging six other homes and two gasoline stations, officials said.

Television news footage showed helicopters landing on the football field near wreckage of the school in Enterprise, while ambulances came and went. The shredded building was surrounded by broken trees and overturned cars.

Emergency officials told local television that at least one teacher was among those killed at the school. CNN quoted an eyewitness as saying he carried the bodies of two young girls out of the building.

US President George Bush, who earlier toured New Orleans and the Gulf Coast to assess the recovery from Hurricane Katrina, called the Alabama and Missouri governors to extend condolences and offer aid, the White House said.

Alabama state officials sent search and rescue teams, ambulances, generators and emergency lights to Enterprise to aid the search for survivors. Phone service and electricity were out through much of the area.

Doctors treated more than 50 people for lacerations, broken bones and other injuries, hospital CEO Jeff Brannon said. Most of them were hurt at the school.

Hospital workers had rushed to move patients away from the windows as sirens screamed out a warning moments before a dark funnel cloud roared past. Hospital windows burst and cars were pummeled in the hospital parking lot, Brannon said.

Parts of several Midwestern states and regions as far south as the Gulf Coast to the Florida Panhandle had been under tornado watches or warnings most of the day.

In Chicago, more than 400 flights were canceled at O’Hare International Airport as gusty storms and fog rolled in.

”To the best of our knowledge there was at least one significant tornado that went through the city of Enterprise but we won’t know if there was more than one before tomorrow when we send a team to conduct a storm survey of the affected area,” said Tom Bradshaw, a meteorologist in Fort Worth, Texas, with the National Weather Service headquarters for the southern region.

”Several counties in Alabama and also Georgia are currently under tornado warnings,” he said.

Thursday’s storms came just a month after a tornado killed about 20 people in central Florida. – Reuters