ATKINS, Ark. – Tornadoes across four Southern states tore through homes, ripped the roof off a shopping mall and blew apart warehouses in a rare spasm of violent winter weather that killed at least 22 people and injured dozens more.
The twisters that slammed Arkansas, Mississippi, Tennessee and Kentucky were part of a line of storms that raged across the nation’s midsection at the end of a day of Super Tuesday primaries in several states. Candidates including Hillary Rodham Clinton, Barack Obama and Mike Huckabee even paused their victory speeches to remember the victims.
A spectacular fire erupted at a natural gas pumping station northeast of Nashville that authorities said could have been damaged by the storms, and an undetermined number of people were reported dead.
A couple and their 11-year-old daughter were killed in their home after a tornado touched down near the center of Atkins, a community of 3,000 along the Arkansas River in the central part of the state where authorities searched in the dark for survivors.
The storms killed at least 11 people in Arkansas, eight in Tennessee and three in Kentucky, authorities said.
At least six tornadoes touched down in the 100 miles between Oxford, Miss., and Jackson, Tenn., according to the National Weather Service in Memphis, where deaths and damage were also reported.
One storm tore a large part of the north wall off Hickory Ridge Mall in Memphis. A few people north of the mall took shelter under a bridge and were washed away, but they were pulled out of the Wolf River with only scrapes, said Steve Cole of the Memphis Police Department.
Later, the storms damaged a dormitory at Union University in Jackson, trapping at least three people who talked by phone to rescuers who were trying to dig them out. A 2003 tornado in Jackson killed 11 people and a 1999 twister killed nine.
In Arkansas, the Baxter County Sheriff’s Office said debris, including parts of houses, blocked U.S. Highway 62. The town of Gassville was sealed off because of the possibility of gas leaks.
Officials do not know what started a fire at the Columbia Gulf Natural Gas pumping station near Green Grove, about 40 miles from Nashville. The blaze could be seen in the night sky for miles around, with flames shooting “400, 500 feet in the air,” said Tennessee Emergency Management spokesman Donnie Smith.
But the storms could have damaged the station, said Tennessee Highway Patrol spokesman Mike Browning.