NASHVILLE, Tenn., Apr 3 (Reuters) Tornadoes and violent spring thunderstorms in the central United States killed at least 27 people, exploding houses and tossing victims around like twigs, officials said today.
They feared the death toll would rise in Tennessee, where 23 bodies have been found.
''The more we look, the more we find,'' said Donnie Smith, an official with the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency, describing the grim task of removing splintered debris to search for victims.
In Missouri officials reported three deaths in the eastern part of that state, including one man killed when a tree fell on him in a state park. There was one death in southern Illinois when high winds destroyed a clothing store.
Among the dead in Tennessee were an 11-month-old infant and a family of four. In all 15 were killed in Dyer County and eight in nearby Gibson County, both in the northwest section of the state.
Preliminary aerial surveillance, Smith said, indicates that a single killer tornado moving relentlessly on a straight line did the damage in Tennessee. He said hundreds of homes were destroyed or damaged, a figure that may rise especially in Dyer County where damage reports are slow in arriving.
''It just came up all of a sudden. ... I was at the front door and had the kids in the closet and I run to the closet and shut the door and put covers over us. We locked arms,'' Betty Sisk of Newbern, Tennessee, told FOX TV.
She said she, her son and daughter ended up tossed into their yard, their house gone except for its concrete foundation.
''It picked us up and tore the house apart. Debris was going here and there. It jerked my daughter away from me and threw her one way and took my son and I a couple of feet away. She crawled to us after we started hollering at each other. Then we laid there on the ground. I told them to be real still,'' she said.
Power was out in a large area ''and this will become a significant problem'' as rescue efforts continue, Smith said.
There were dozens of injuries, and 17 people were in critical condition.
''Most of those who were killed died in their homes,'' Smith said, when the storms struck after nightfall last evening.
Hundreds of homes and businesses were destroyed or damaged in or around the towns of Bradford and Dyersburg, he added.
The storms were caused by a cold front racing from the west and clashing with moist warm air from the south.
The federal Storm Prediction Center in Oklahoma said it had reports of 63 tornadoes, though the number might actually be less when on-the-ground teams assess whether they actually were twisters.
Most of the tornado reports were in Tennessee, Missouri, Arkansas, Iowa and Illinois, the center said. The town of Sinking Fork in Kentucky also suffered heavy damage from what may have been a tornado, officials there said.
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