At least 15 people were killed in Arkansas, officials say, when a large tornado cut through the state Sunday evening. At one point, 16 people had been reported killed, but that figure was revised Monday.
Storm chasers report the tornado was about a half-mile wide and stayed on the ground at least a half-hour. Hardest hit were the towns of Mayflower and Vilonia, where there was extensive devastation, with homes and buildings being destroyed and trees ripped apart.
Randy Jones and his family took cover in the basement of his brothers’ house in Mayflower as the tornado passed.
"You could just kind of feel it. The noise is like everybody always says, it's like a freight train and it just kind of… you could feel the walls kind of suction. We was fortunate to get out of it,” Jones said.
Mayflower Mayor Randy Holland says he watched the storm from his back porch.
"This thing was so wide and I think the thing that still sticks in my mind is the sound it made. Everybody says it's like a train. It was kind of like that, but it was also a grinding noise. You could just hear things grinding up. I'll never forget that noise as long as I live," Holland said. "Also it almost just sucked the wind. You could feel it actually sucking wind. It was crazy."
The tornado then passed over Interstate 40, where drivers described a chaotic situation as a cloud of debris came through, hitting vehicles, knocking over tractor-trailers and flipping over cars and trucks.
A short time later it hit Vilonia, where Brian Pruitt was at an evening church service. He told television station KARK that people first began getting emergency text alerts on their cell phones. Pruitt said he soon heard a rumbling sound and went outside, seeing the tornado on the ground.
"It was huge though, it was a dark cloud. I run back in. I was like, ‘man it’s on the way,’ so we all kind of hunkered down in here and fortunately, thank God everybody’s ok. There’s no injuries that we know of here in this location," Pruitt said.
Phil Ellis took cover as it passed near his home in Vilonia. Afterward he said he went outside to find widespread devastation.
"Leveled homes, people looking for their family, looking for pets, cars and… people (who) needed to get to the hospital couldn’t get to the hospital because their cars are under their houses and it just was a mess," he told KARK.
The tornado hit around sunset. Crews spent the night digging through the ruble, searching for victims. The Arkansas National Guard has been called out to assist and shelters have been opened for displaced residents.
On Monday morning, Gov. Mike Beebe and Sen. Mark Pryor met with emergency officials to tour a Mayflower neighborhood that suffered the worst damage.
"It's too early to estimate the total damages and I suspect it'll be a number of days. Right now, the preliminary work is primary focused on search and rescue and then security for the rest of the people," Beebe said during a press conference.
President Barack Obama spoke by phone with local leaders, Beebe said, offering assistance from the federal government.
"We've obviously got a lot of experience with tornados, and any tornado is bad, particularly if it's a direct hit on something, but just looking at the damage, this may be one of the strongest that we've seen. And preliminarily, we haven't done any records check, but it looks like this is the largest loss of life that we've seen in one tornado incident since I've been governor," Beebe said.
If there is any bright side to this disaster, officials say, it’s that emergency alert systems seemed to work as intended, providing plenty of advanced notice of the approaching storm. Forecasters with the National Weather Service had been warning since Friday of the potential for severe weather Sunday and tornado watches and warnings were issued well before the storm came through.