- Associated Press - Monday, April 28, 2014

VILONIA, Ark. — The sky turned black as the funnel cloud closed in, and Maggie Caro rushed with her husband and two children to a community shelter at a Vilonia school, hurrying in among the last to get inside the fortified gym.

“They were screaming, ‘Run! Run! It’s coming!’” Caro recalled.


PHOTOS: Tornadoes devastate Central and Southern states


And then all hell broke loose.

The half-mile-wide tornado carved an 80-mile path of destruction through the Little Rock suburbs Sunday evening, killing at least 14 people, flattening rows of homes, shredding cars along a highway and demolishing a brand-new school before it even had a chance to open.

It was among a rash of tornadoes and storms that roared across the Midwest and South, with forecasters warning of more of the same Monday in Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee and Louisiana.

A separate twister killed one person in Quapaw, Okla., on Sunday evening, then crossed into Kansas, where it destroyed more than 100 homes and businesses and injured 25 people in the city of Baxter Springs. A farm building collapsed in Iowa from either a tornado or powerful straight-line winds, killing one woman.

Most of the dead in Arkansas were killed in their homes in and around Vilonia, population 3,800. Firefighters on Monday searched for anyone trapped amid the piles of splintered wood and belongings strewn across yards.

Officials said the death toll could have been worse if residents hadn’t piled into underground storm shelters and fortified rooms after listening to forecasts on TV and radio, getting cellphone alerts or calls or texts from loved ones, and hearing sirens blare through their neighborhoods.

Also on people’s minds: memories of a weaker tornado that smashed through on April 25, 2011. It took nearly the same path and killed at least four people.

“You had people breaking down because they were reliving three years ago,” Kimber Standridge said of the scene inside the community shelter, which she said was packed with perhaps more than 100 people.

Standridge and a friend had gathered up seven children they were watching and sped through the streets just minutes before the twister hit.

“When they shut the doors, we knew it was on us,” Standridge said. “Everybody hunkered down. There were a lot of people doing prayer circles, holding hands and praying.”

Caro and Standridge said the shelter was so solid they barely felt or heard the tornado.

The tornado that hit Vilonia and nearby Mayflower was probably the nation’s strongest so far this year on the 0-to-5 EF scale, with the potential to be at least an EF3, which means winds greater than 136 mph, National Weather Service meteorologist Jeff Hood said.

It shredded cars, trucks and 18-wheelers along Interstate 40 north of Little Rock. Also among the ruins was a new $14 million intermediate school that had been set to open this fall. Hospitals took in more than 100 patients.

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