- Associated Press - Sunday, March 4, 2012

EAST BERNSTADT, Ky. (AP) — The stories from tornado survivors across the South and Midwest were remarkable: Schoolchildren took cover under desks; people hunkered down in a church basement or hid out in a bank vault; one family even piled on top of one another for protection.

One of the most remarkable survivors was a toddler found alive and alone in a field near her Indiana home. Her four immediate family members were among at least 36 people killed by tornadoes that scarred communities scattered across hundreds of miles of the nation’s midsection from Alabama to Indiana.

In Kentucky farming country, people remembered friends and family members who were killed in the most powerful storms to hit the eastern part of the state in nearly a quarter-century.

Tracy Pitman said she was at home with her husband and 4-year-old grandson when a tornado with winds of up to 130 mph hit.

“I grabbed my baby and I said, ‘Baby, lay down,’ and I got on top of him and my husband got on top of me and it was already happening, just flipping us over and over and over,” said Mrs. Pitman of East Bernstadt, Ky., a small town 70 miles south of Lexington.

As the accounts were passed around, emergency officials trudged with search dogs past knocked-down cellphone towers and ruined homes looking for survivors in rural Kentucky and Indiana, marking searched roads and homes with orange paint. President Obama offered federal assistance.

The worst damage appeared centered in some hard-hit small towns of southern Indiana and eastern Kentucky’s Appalachian foothills. No building was untouched, and few were recognizable in West Liberty, Ky., about 90 miles from Lexington, where two white police cruisers were picked up and tossed into City Hall.

“We stood in the parking lot and watched it coming,” said David Ison, who raced into a bank vault with nine others to seek safety. “By the time it hit, it was like a whiteout.”

The spate of storms was the second in little more than 48 hours, after an earlier round killed 13 people in the Midwest and South. They were the latest in a string of severe-weather episodes that have ravaged the heartland in the past year.

Friday’s violent storms touched down in at least a dozen states, killing 19 people in Kentucky, 12 in Indiana, three in Ohio, and one each in Alabama and Georgia.

Indiana officials on Sunday lowered the state’s death toll to 12 people from the previous 14.

Indiana State Police Sgt. Ray Poole said officials in southern Indiana’s Scott County had told the state Department of Homeland Security that the county had one death rather than the three they first reported. Sgt. Poole said he did not know the reasons for the confusion.

All the Indiana deaths happened in the southern part of the state near Louisville, Ky.

The National Weather Service said the four twisters to hit Kentucky were the worst in the region in 24 years. In Indiana, an EF-4 tornado — the second-highest on the Fujita scale that measures tornadic force — packing 175 mph winds hit the town of Henryville and stayed on the ground for more than 50 miles. Three tornadoes in Kentucky had wind speeds up to 160 mph.

The storms left behind a trail of shredded sheet metal, insulation, gutted churches and crunched-up cars.

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