LOUISVILLE, Miss. — Ruth Bennett died clutching the last child left at her day care center as a tornado wiped the building off its foundation. A firefighter who came upon the body gently pulled the toddler from her arms.
“It makes you just take a breath now,” said next-door neighbor Kenneth Billingsley, who witnessed the scene at what was left of Ruth’s Child Care Center in this logging town of 6,600. “It makes you pay attention to life.”
Bennett, 53, was among at least 34 people killed in a two-day outbreak of twisters and other violent weather that pulverized homes in half a dozen states from Iowa to Tennessee. The child’s fate was not immediately known.
As crews in Mississippi and Alabama turned from search-and-rescue efforts to cleanup, the South braced for a third round of potentially deadly weather yesterday. Tornadoes usually strike in the late afternoon and evening.
One of the hardest-hit areas in Monday evening’s barrage of twisters was Tupelo, Miss., where a gas station looked as if it had been stepped on by a giant.
Francis Gonzalez, who also owns a convenience store and Mexican restaurant attached to the service station, took cover with her three children and two employees in the store’s cooler as the roof over the gas pumps was reduced to aluminum shards.
“My Lord, how can all this happen in just one second?” she said in Spanish.
Yesterday, the whine of chain saws cut through the otherwise still, hazy morning in Tupelo. Massive oak trees, knocked over like toys, blocked roads. Neighbors helped one another cut away limbs.
“This does not even look like a place that I’m familiar with right now,” said Pam Montgomery, walking her dog in her neighborhood. “You look down some of the streets, and it doesn’t even look like there is a street.”