EVANSVILLE, Ind. (AP) – A tornado tore across western Kentucky and Indiana early yesterday, killing at least 21 people as it cut through a mobile home park and obliterated trailers and houses as residents slept.
The tornado, estimated to have winds of at least 158 mph, hit a horse track near Henderson, Ky., then jumped the Ohio River into Indiana around 2 a.m.
“It was just a real loud roar. It didn’t seem like it lasted over 45 seconds to a minute, then it was calm again,” said Steve Gaiser, who lives near the Eastbrook Mobile Home Park in Evansville.
At least 17 people were killed in the mobile home park, according to Eric Williams of the Vanderburgh County Sheriff’s Department.
More people were believed to still be trapped in the debris, and National Guard units were called in to help with search-and-recovery efforts. At least 200 people were injured during the storm.
“They were in trailer homes, homes that were just torn apart by the storm, so they’re just now getting in there trying to find people,” said deputy Vanderburgh county coroner Annie Groves. “It’s just terrible.”
Rescuers on the scene since 2 a.m. reported seeing children wandering the area looking for their parents and parents searching for missing children. Children’s bicycles and other toys were strewn amid the debris of aluminum siding, mattresses, chairs and insulation.
Four other people were confirmed dead in neighboring Warrick County, east of Evansville, where the Ohio River city of Newburgh was hit. No deaths were immediately reported in Kentucky.
The storm reduced homes to splinters and scattered debris across the countryside. Entire blocks of buildings were nothing but rubble.
Indiana homeland security spokeswoman Pam Bright said about 100 of the 350 or so homes in at the Evansville mobile home park were destroyed and 125 others were damaged.
Larry and Christie Brown rode out the storm inside their mobile home.
“Man, it was more than words can say,” Larry Brown said. “We opened the door and there wasn’t anything sitting there.”
Chad Bennett, assistant fire chief in Newburgh, told CNN that sirens sounded, but most people didn’t hear them because it happened in the middle of the night.
The tornado developed in a line of thunderstorms that rolled rapidly eastward across the Ohio Valley. The National Weather Service had posted severe thunderstorm warnings for sections of northern Ohio.
Ryan Presley, a weather service meteorologist in Paducah, Ky., said a single tornado touched down near Smith Mills in western Kentucky and cut a 15- to 20-mile swath through Indiana’s Vanderburgh and Warrick counties.
The tornado appears to have been an F3, with winds ranging from 158 mph to 206 mph, and may have been even stronger, Presley said.
Warrick County Sheriff Marvin Heilman said the victims included a woman who was eight months’ pregnant, her husband and a young child in the rural town of Degonia Springs. A teenage girl was also killed near Boonville, and her father was critically injured, he said.
Tim Martin, 42, was at his parents’ mobile home when the tornado struck. The three were awakened by the wind, which picked up the home and moved it halfway into the neighbor’s yard.
He and his parents escaped unharmed, but they heard several neighbors calling for help. A neighboring mobile home was overturned, he said, and another appeared to have been obliterated.
“All I could see was debris,” he said. “I thought it was a bad dream.”
Patty Ellerbusch, 53, said she and her husband were in bed at their hilltop home in Newburgh when a relative called and warned them of the tornado. They heard a low roar and ran for the basement.
She made it downstairs, but her husband did not. He was blasted with shattered drywall, wood and other debris as the tornado shredded the home’s roof.
“He was running down the hallway, and it knocked him down and ripped his glasses off. He said it felt like being in a wind tunnel,” she said. The storm stripped the roof off most of the couple’s home, destroyed their barn and left surrounding trees shorn of limbs.