A violent storm system ripped apart an Alabama high school as students hunkered inside and later tore through Georgia, hitting a hospital and raising the death toll Friday to at least 20 across the Midwest and Southeast.
Eight students died when a tornado struck Enterprise High School, Mayor Kenneth Boswell said Friday. The teenage victims were all in a wing of the school that took a direct hit as the tornado blew out the walls and roof.
"It was in a split second that we sat down and started to cover ourselves before the storm hit," said 17-year-old Kira Simpson, who lost four friends to the storm. "Glass was breaking. It was loud."
"It's like a bad dream. I have to keep reminding myself that it actually happened," she said.
As the massive storm system swept into Georgia, another tornado apparently touched down near the Sumter Regional Hospital in Americus, 117 miles south of Atlanta, blowing out the windows, tossing cars into trees and killing at least two people, said Buzz Weiss of the Georgia Emergency Management Agency.
Doctors, nurses and volunteers had worked into the night to evacuate dozens of patients.
"It was controlled chaos," said Dr. Tim Powell, an anesthesiologist.
Six more people were killed in the town of Newton, Ga., including a child, and several homes were destroyed, Fire Chief Andy Belinc said early Friday.
"It's just a blessing, frankly, that we didn't have more fatalities than we did," Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue said after viewing the damage Friday. He declared a state of emergency in six counties, clearing the way for state aid.
The burst of tornadoes was part of a larger line of thunderstorms and snowstorms that stretched from Minnesota to the Gulf Coast. Authorities blamed tornadoes for the deaths of a 7-year-old girl in Missouri, 10 people in Alabama and nine in Georgia, and twisters also damaged homes in Kansas.
President Bush planned to visit two of the storm-damaged areas on Saturday, the White House said. The destinations were still being worked out Friday with governors in the affected states.
As the storm swept out to sea off South Carolina on Friday, the Coast Guard suspended a search for six boaters, saying a distress call during the storm late Thursday that their small craft was taking on water was likely a hoax. No debris or evidence of a boat was found.
In all, the National Weather Service received 31 reports of tornadoes Thursday from Missouri, Illinois, Alabama, Georgia and Florida, plus a report Friday of a waterspout near Cartaret, N.C.
The normal peak tornado season is April and May, but weather service meteorologist Dennis Feltgen said tornadoes can occur at any time.
At Enterprise High School, officials had been watching the storm Thursday as it swept through southern Missouri and headed into Alabama. The students were preparing to leave for the day when the sirens started up and the lights went out.
Teacher Grannison Wagstaff was with them.
"I said 'Here it comes. Hit the deck," he told CBS's "The Early Show" Friday. "I turned around and I could actually see the tornado coming toward me."
A section of roof and a wall near 17-year-old senior Erin Garcia collapsed on her classmates.
"I was just sitting there praying the whole time," Erin said. "It sounded like a bunch of people trying to beat the wall down. People didn't know where to go. They were trying to lead us out of the building.
"I kept seeing people with blood on their faces."
Outside, debris from the school was strewn around the neighborhood, where cars were flipped or tossed atop each other. Searchers pulled the final body, a boy, from the high school's wreckage around 1:30 a.m. Friday, assistant superintendent Bob Phares said.
Phares said it appeared that when the wall collapsed in the storm, the concrete slab ceiling came straight down on the students.
School officials had moved all the students into the interior halls after the first warnings were issued around 10:30 a.m. by the National Weather Serivce, Phares said. A "significant number" of students were checked out by their parents after that. The school planned to send the rest of the students home at 1 p.m., but then a new warning surfaced, so that was delayed to 1:30 p.m., he said. The storm hit around 1:15 p.m.
Gov. Bob Riley on Friday defended the school officials' actions after touring the area.
"I think they saved a lot of lives," Riley said. "I told the principal, 'You can do everything exactly right and have this happen.'"
Mayor Boswell said officials had yet to determine where the school's students would attend classes for the rest of the year.
He appeared drained as his staff and National Guard crews tried to assess the damage in torn-up neighborhoods. At least one other person was killed in Enterprise, a city of about 23,000 some 75 miles south of Montgomery. Another died across the state in rural Millers Ferry, where trailer homes were flipped and trees toppled, officials said.
In Sumter County, Ga., home of former President Jimmy Carter, Sumter Regional Hospital was in shambles Friday morning. Officials weren't sure whether the people injured and the two reported dead in town were inside the hospital when the storm struck, Weiss said.
Near Newton, about 50 miles to the south, Marvin Hurst was home with his wife and 31-year-old son when the storm hit and the house "exploded." Only a few sections of rear wall were left standing.
"It's just by the grace of God that we got out," Hurst said.
Between 40 and 60 homes were also damaged in nearby Clay County, on the Alabama line, Weiss said. Another tornado killed a man in a mobile home in Taylor County, north of Americus, county Emergency Management Agency Director Gary Lowe said.
Around Americus, the storm uprooted trees and knocked down power lines. Several homes and businesses were destroyed. At Cheek Memorial Church, the wooden steeple had toppled.
Marcia Wilson, who lives across the street from the Church, said she heard a huge roar as the storm went through.
"It felt like the whole house was fixing to fall in," she said. "All I could do was pray that God take care of us and he did."
Associated Press Writers Greg Bluestein in Americus, Ga., and Elliot Minor in Newton, Ga., contributed to this report.