ASKEWVILLE, N.C. – A tornado-spewing storm system that killed at least 45 people across half the country unleashed its worst fury on North Carolina, where homes broke apart, trees snapped and livestock were swept into the air. Residents in the capital city and rural hamlets alike on Sunday mourned the dead, marveled at their own survival and began to clean up devastated neighborhoods.
Observers reported more than 60 tornadoes across North Carolina on Saturday, but most of the state’s 21 confirmed deaths occurred in two rural counties. A thunderstorm spawned a tornado that killed four people in southeastern Bladen County, then kept dropping tornadoes as it hopscotched more than 150 miles, eventually moving into Bertie County and killing 11 more.
Heavy winds swept some homes from their foundations, demolished others and flipped cars on tiny rural roads between Askewville and Colerain, Bertie County Manager Zee Lamb said. At least three of those who died were from the same family, he said.
The winds ripped to shreds the doublewide mobile home in Askewville where Justin Dunlow had sought shelter for his 3-year-old daughter, 5-year-old son and himself. The 23-year-old roofer, whose own mobile home nearby also was destroyed, lay on both children as the storm did its worst.
“I just started praying, and the wall fell on top of us and that’s what kept us there,” he said. “I can replace the house, but I can’t replace my babies. And that’s what I thought about. I’m alive. My babies are alive.”
In Bladen County, Milton McKoy had thought his mobile home in Ammon was out of the storm’s path before he saw a tornado over the tops of pine trees, lifting pigs and other animals into the sky.
“It looked just like ‘The Wizard of Oz,’ ” said his wife, Audrey.
More than 240 tornadoes were reported from the storm system, including 62 in North Carolina, but the National Weather Service’s final numbers could be lower because some tornadoes may have been reported more than once.
Saturday was North Carolina’s deadliest day for tornadoes since 1984, when 22 twisters killed 42 people and injured hundreds.
Gov. Beverly Perdue declared a state of emergency.