HENRYVILLE, Ind. —
A series of powerful tornadoes that tore through southern Indiana on Friday killed at least 14 people and left several small towns in ruin. Authorities warned a death toll that rose throughout the night could grow further after dawn as rescue teams began to search in the daylight.
The twisters tossed debris across several counties north of Louisville, Ky., and left many rubble-strewn roadways impassable for crews trying to assess the full extent of the havoc wrought by a line of powerful storms that killed nearly 30 people in three states.
“We won’t know what’s going on before daybreak,” Maj. Chuck Adams of the Clark County Sheriff’s Department said after confirming one person had died in hard-hit Henryville, where the only light to be seen after nightfall glowed from rescue vehicles and flashlights. “Right now, we’re getting by through the night as best we can.”
As some officials struggled to measure the losses, others searched house-by-house along hundreds of miles of darkened county roads. They all found devastation in the storm’s wake.
“It’s all gone,” Henryville resident Andy Bell said as he guarded a friend’s demolished service garage, not far from where a school bus stuck out from the side of a restaurant and a parking lot where a small classroom chair jutted from a car’s driver’s side window.
“It was beautiful,” he said, looking around. “And now it’s just gone. I mean, gone.”
North of Henryville, Indiana State Police Master Trooper Rick Stockdale said four people were killed in the Chelsea area of Jefferson County. Stockdale said a man, woman and their 4-year-old great-grandchild died in one house, and another man was killed in his home a short distance away.
Tony Williams, owner of the Chelsea General Store, said the child and mother were huddled in a basement when the storm hit and sucked the 4-year-old out her hands. The mother survived, but her 70-year-old grandparents were upstairs; both died.
“They found them in the field, back behind the house,” Williams said.
At least four more people died in Washington County and three more people died in Scott County, officials said. Two more were killed in Holton in Ripley County, including a man from Mexico who was visiting friends, said Indiana State Police Sgt. Noel Houze Jr.
National Weather Service meteorologist Brian Schoettmer estimated the storm may have moved across four or five southern Indiana counties and likely spawned several tornadoes.
Bent utility poles in several towns hovered precariously over ground littered with upturned vehicles and remnant of homes. Trees were toppled, some sheared mid-trunk.
“I’m a storm chaser,” said Susie Renner, 54, of Henryville, “and I have never been this frightened before.”
Few recognizable structures remained in Henryville, where all three of the town’s schools were destroyed. District spokeswoman Sara Reschar said only a handful of students were in the high school when the tornado struck. The rest had been sent home for the day.
“Thank God, or they all would have been gone,” she said.
Secretary Martha Thomas had not yet fled when the storm hit, and was at the school when a bus driver returned with 11 kids after spotting a massive funnel cloud. The group joined about 30 other people hunkered under tables in the first-floor nurse’s station.
“We were all in the nurse’s station, and we had everybody under cover,” she said. “Everybody safe.”
Leah Boylan said she was in an upstairs apartment above a pizza restaurant with her 5-year-old daughter and a nephew when she heard the storm sirens wail. She hustled and hunkered down in the restaurant’s bathroom.
“I heard the restaurant tables flying through the air, hitting the bathroom door,” Boylan said. “It was over so fast, it took 30 seconds. All of us survived unscathed.”
Paul Lambert, a retired immigrant from Canada who lives close to nearby Marysville, was heading for home with his wife when they saw the funnel cloud aloft and took shelter in a hospital basement.
Their first thought upon emerging was to check on their Marysville church. They found the 120-year-old building knocked off its foundation and littered with debris, the cross atop the steeple broken.
“There’s a piece of lumber sticking through the roof that came from somewhere, and the front door is lying at the third row of pews,” Lambert said. “The houses all around have been pretty much destroyed.”
Schoettmer, the meteorologist, said the week’s second round of deadly storms were generated when a cold front collided with a surge of warm, moist air moving ahead of a low pressure area that traveled from the Ozarks to the lower Great Lakes.
“It was basically a perfect combination of a very unstable atmosphere and basically turning winds with height ... that caused super cell storms, which are notorious for spawning tornadoes,” he said.
Clark County Sheriff Danny Rodden suggested the area had been given ample warning before Friday.
“We knew this was coming. We were watching the weather like everyone else,” Rodden said. “This was the worst case scenario. There’s no way you can prepare for something like this.”
Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, who planned to tour the damage Saturday, issued a statement saying improved warning systems and responder communications “are no match for Mother Nature at her worst.”
“We’re hopeful that we know the full extent of the damage but it will be tomorrow before we can give a final report with any confidence,” he said.
Associated Press writer Bruce Schreiner and Jim Suhr contributed to this report.