RALEIGH — A tornado flipped cars, shredded trees and ripped mobile homes to pieces in the little riverside community of Riegelwood early Thursday, killing at least eight people, authorities said.
Kip Godwin, chairman of the Columbus County Board of Commissioners, said just before 5 p.m. that authorities have mostly concluded their search efforts, and they have accounted for everyone on their list of missing persons.
A total of 19 people, including four children, were treated for storm-related injuries and sent to hospitals in four counties, authorities said late Thursday afternoon.
"There is a full gamut of injuries that are involved -- head, chest, abdomen, extremities," said Dr. Sam Spicer with New Hanover Medical Center.
Two of the youngest children, ages 2 and 3, were transferred to Pitt Memorial Hospital in Greenville. A third child, age 2, was transferred to UNC Hospitals in Chapel Hill.
Rescue workers used heavy construction equipment to search for bodies amid the wreckage. Searchers had found eight bodies in the wreckage by late afternoon, and Godwin said, "We're still reserving the right that it may change."
The tornado hit a mobile home park on Holly Tree Lane and Pretty Branch Lane -- about a mile from the Cape Fear River -- and left an extensive area covered with debris. Godwin said tractors and backhoes were being brought into the area to help remove debris and search for survivors.
Gov. Mike Easley activated the State Emergency Response Team Thursday morning and dispatched emergency crews to assist affected counties. He said he likely wouldn't activate the National Guard because Highway Patrol and local authorities could secure the area.
"This devastating storm has resulted in loss of life and injuries in several communities," Easley said. "We have mobilized to make sure these cities and towns can fully respond to critical needs, that any disrupted basic services are rapidly restored and people can start recovery efforts as soon as possible."
As local officials are able to assess the situation in their areas, he said, damage assessment teams would be dispatched as requested by county officials. Information from the assessment teams would be used to determine what steps would be taken on a state level and whether a federal disaster declaration is needed, the governor said.
Small Community Had Little Warning
County commissioners said Riegelwood has no sirens to warn of severe weather.
"I'm sure it caught them off guard, and they didn't have a lot of time to take cover," Godwin said.
It is estimated that the tornado caused destruction in a path of about three-quarters of a mile long and about 300 yards wide, damaged up to 40 homes and destroyed many others.
"It would get several trailers and skip two, and get more," Alton Edwards, a member of the volunteer Acme-Delco-Riegelwood Fire and Rescue team, said of the early morning tornado that struck "with very little warning."
"It almost looked like the mobile homes had exploded," he said. "There were cars on top of one another. It's just about as bad as it gets."
Because of the extensive loss of life, the National Weather Service has personnel flying in from its headquarters in Oklahoma to do an aerial survey to try and determine the tornado's speed and size.
The Cape Fear Chapter of the American Red Cross and county emergency management officials opened a shelter at Acme-Delco Elementary School, at 16337 Old Lake Road in Riegelwood, which was closed for the day to assist evacuated residents. About 30 families had sought shelter at the school by mid-morning, said Vicki Chapman, the executive director of the Red Cross chapter.
About 100 people were expected to take shelter Thursday night.
"We're prepared to do what we need to do as long as we need to do it," Chapman said, noting Red Cross volunteers would provide food, clothing, shelter and health and mental health services for affected residents.
Storm, Deaths Send Shock Through Community
Residents of the rural area said they were stunned by the death and devastation.
"I couldn't believe it. I'm still in shock," said Edwina Wilson, whose cousins were killed in the storm. "It's unreal."
A teenager who said she was a cousin of some storm victims said she was on a school bus Thursday morning when the tornado ripped through the community.
"I've never seen anything like it in my life, and I hope to never see it again," the girl said.
Bob High, a reporter and photographer with The News Reporter in nearby Whiteville, called the tornado damage the worst disaster he had seen in 50 years of reporting.
"I just never thought I'd see (such damage) in my own county," High said.
N.C. Highway 87 was blocked by debris, Lt. Everett Clendenin of the Highway Patrol said, and authorities had blocked off other roads in the area twhile agencies assisted storm victims. Traffic was being detoured off N.C. 87 onto N.C. Highway 11 and U.S. Highway 74/76.
State Department of Transportation crews were working to clear debris off the roadways.
System Affected Much Of State
The tornado was part of a cold front that produced severe weather across the Deep South on Wednesday. A tornado watch remained in effect for much of eastern North Carolina until 6 p.m. Various tornado warnings also were issued throughout the morning.
About 11,000 electric customers across the state were without power as of early aftenoon Thursday, according to Progress Energy and Duke Power.
In Pender County, emergency management officials said several homes saw wind damages. Most of the damage occurred along Highway 210, Bethel Church Road and Canetuck Road in the Currie Community near the Bladen County line. Other minor damages were located near the town of Atkinson.
Columbus County saw another fatality when a driver lost control of his car on a rain-slickened U.S. Highway 701 in the western part of the county at about 8 a.m. and slid off the road, Clendenin said.
A mid-morning tornado warning in Johnston County prompted the evacuation of some patients, visitors and staff from Johnston Memorial Hospital and a nearby medical mall.
Bed-ridden patients were moved into halls and away from windows, said Susan Phillips, a spokeswoman for Johnston Memorial. The precautionary measures lasted 30 minutes, but caused some anxious moments for relatives.
Two house fires in Cary also were linked to lightning from the storms, authorities said. A 67-year-old woman in a house on Annandale Drive was taken to a hospital as a precaution after flames trapped her in her home for a time, and a house on Mill Gate Lane sustained minor damage, authorities said.
Heavy rains flooded several roads and caused multiple fender-benders across the region. Authorities closed part of Walnut Street in Cary because of flooding, and high water also slowed traffic on U.S. Highway 64 in eastern Wake County and on Avent Ferry Road near Holly Springs.
A man was rescued from a car that veered off the Durham Freeway and into a drainage ditch near Cornwallis Road, authorities said. The man was taken to Duke University Hospital as a precaution. It was unclear whether the weather was a factor in the accident, authorities said.
A tractor-trailer jackknifed east of Fremont in Wayne County at the intersection of N.C. Highways 111 and 222, tying up traffic, authorities said. The driver was trying to slow as he approached ponding water on the highway, authorities said.
A truckload of plants spilled on Royal Avenue in Goldsboro when a tractor-trailer overturned, authorities said. The driver swerved to avoid a car that had pulled in front of the truck and wound up in a ditch with the truck on its side, authorities said.
WRAL meteorologist Elizabeth Gardner said wind gusts of about 60 mph were reported in Johnston County, and a few buildings near Greensboro were damaged by high winds.
A possible tornado struck near Statesville in Iredell County, injuring two people, one critically, The Charlotte Observer reported. Fallen trees blocked roads in Lincoln County, the newspaper reported.
On Wednesday, the same system produced tornadoes that killed one man in Louisiana and ripped through a church, a school and several homes in Mississippi. High winds also destroyed a skating rink in Alabama.