- Associated Press - Friday, April 15, 2011

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — Destructive storms that tore across the country’s midsection left at least nine people dead after smashing uprooted trees into homes in Arkansas and ripping apart the only school in one tiny Oklahoma town, officials said Friday.

A tornado swept through Tushka in southeast Oklahoma town late Thursday, killing two sisters in their 70s, Salvation Army Capt. Ric Swartz said.

The tornado also injured at least 25 people as it ground through the town of 350 residents, said Gilbert Wilson, Atoka County’s emergency management director. He said witnesses reported seeing two tornadoes that merged to form a single twister. The National Weather Service confirmed a single tornado hit the area.

Tushka Public School Principal Matt Simpson said the storm destroyed five school buildings and that the campus is littered with downed trees and bricks blown from the buildings. Students from kindergarten through 12th grade attend the school, which was empty when the storm hit.

Easton Crow, a junior, drove by after the storm and saw missing roofs, crushed vehicles and textbooks scattered everywhere.

“I’m heartbroken. This is where most of us grew up,” Crow, 17, said. “I’m just in awe that in a few seconds memories that have been built were taken.”

The school won’t reopen for the rest of school year and officials must figure out where students will attend class, the principal said.

“I’ve been doing this for 10 years, but this is definitely new for me,” Simpson said. “It means a lot of challenges I wasn’t expecting.”

Gov. Mary Fallin planned to travel to the stricken town later Friday.

Emergency crews are clearing storm debris from the town’s roads to survivors can return home and officials can assess the damage, Wilson said.

Jim Sarris, 43, returned to his home in Tushka on Friday morning to find the back of his house blown away and debris littering his property. He found his 1986 high school letter jacket a few hundred feet away.

“I had to crawl through (the house) to get a pair of pants.”

An Atoka Trailer Manufacturing plant was destroyed by the storm. The owner, Ryan Eaves, said it would cost millions of dollars to rebuild the plant where some 60 employees assembled trailers that haul heavy equipment.

“Twenty-four hours ago this was an 80-thousand square foot heavy manufacturing facility, at the moment it’s a pile of rubble,” Eaves said. “This building was a shining bright spot for the community. To think it could be overtaken like this is overwhelming.”

He said he would shift work to another factory three miles away.

High winds associated with the same storm system killed seven people across Arkansas early Friday.

In Garland County, a 24-year-old man and his 18-month-old daughter were killed when lightning struck a tree, which then fell on their mobile home on Pistol Circle. The victims were crushed in their bed. As the sun rose Friday, one side of the mobile home was torn away, and the tree still rested on a mattress.

Neighbor Melissa Wright, who lives in a mobile home across the street with her mother and daughter, said her mother was outside and saw the lightning strike.

“I have a 3-year-old girl, and that’s my worst fear,” she said. “You don’t think that when you’re lying in your bed, something like this could happen to you.”

In Little Rock, tree fell on a home, killing an 8-year-old boy and his mother who had climbed into bed with him as a severe storm moved through the city overnight, Little Rock police spokesman Terry Hastings said.

An infant sleeping in another room was not hurt, Hastings said.

In Bald Knob, a 6-year-old boy was killed when a huge tree fell crushed his home at about 2:30 a.m. Police Chief Tim Sanford said the tree was between 6 and 8 feet in diameter and it took more than two hours to get a truck big enough to lift it so they could reach the child.

“It was a very large, old tree,” Sanford said. “This is very, very tragic.”

Sanford said the boy’s parents and a sibling were rescued with minor injuries. The chief said the tree appeared to have been blown down by straight-line winds.

In eastern Arkansas, strong winds knocked a trailer from its moorings in the little community of Colt, killing a woman inside.

St. Francis County Sheriff Bobby May said a strong downburst of wind apparently got under the double-wide mobile home where Lardelah Anderson, 64, and her husband lived, flipping it onto its roof. Jesse Anderson, 65, was taken to the Regional Medical Center at Memphis, Tenn., where he underwent surgery Friday morning, May said.

In Scott in Pulaski County, a man was killed when a tree fell on his recreational vehicle. Sheriff’s spokesman Lt. Carl Minden identified the victim as James Lofts, 56.

As the sun rose Friday, the storms were moving across Tennessee, Louisiana and Mississippi.


Associated Press writers Chuck Bartels in Little Rock, Sarah Eddington in Crystal Springs, Ark., and Ken Miller and Rochelle Hines in Oklahoma City contributed to this report.

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