Death toll rises to 12 in Alabama twisters; holidays on hold

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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. - The tornado that ripped through Tuscaloosa was seven football fields wide and was the deadliest twister in the nation this year, a federal weather official said.

Eleven people died along a 12-mile path of destruction in Tuscaloosa, including a 15-month-old boy whose body was found amid the rubble the morning after. Authorities said the child's father also was killed, and his mother and two sisters were hospitalized in Birmingham.

A 12th person died in Geneva, more than three hours to the south. At least 75 people were injured in Saturday storms.

The deadliest twister, rated an F-4 on a scale that extends to F-5, was the single strongest storm in Tuscaloosa County in 50 years, said Brian Peters, a meteorologist at the weather service in Birmingham.

The winds of an F-4 tornado reach 207 mph to 260 mph, Peters said. During most of Saturday's storm, winds averaged between 175 mph and 200 mph, he added. An F-5 storm carries winds above 260 mph.

At the home of Marilyn King, Christmas decorations lay in a damp pile on the cold floor Sunday, along with shattered remains of red and gold glass balls, holiday plates and glasses.

But King still had her husband, two daughters and son-in-law. All five had cowered in a hallway as the tornado roared by 100 yards away, blasting out windows and splintering the roof.

''I'm just thankful we're not planning a funeral,'' she said.

Others were less fortunate. Gov. Don Siegelman toured the area Sunday, including the Bear Creek Mobile Home Park, where six died.

''When you see the devastation, the families, the homes and the businesses, you can feel the pain of these people,'' Siegelman said. ''It will be a long time before the effects of this tornado are mended.''

The twisters preceded a cold front that drove temperatures down more than 50 degrees in a few hours. Sunday morning, temperatures were near 20 degrees with wind chills near zero.

Storm victims had to brush away light snow as they sifted through the rubble.

''It's amazing - 70 or 75 degrees the day of the tornado and 20 the next,'' Mike Fields said as he surveyed damage to his house. A tear ran down his cheek in the biting wind.

Alabama Power Co. said it had restored power to most of the 57,000 households that lost electricity at the height of the storm. Shelters were opened in churches and a community college.

The governor said he expects the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, James Lee Witt, to visit by Tuesday.

The director of the Alabama Emergency Management Agency, Lee Helms, said crews would work through Christmas if needed, overseeing the removal of debris and assessing damage.

''In a disaster there are no holidays,'' he said.

It was the deadliest tornado to strike Alabama since the spring of 1998, when 34 people died in neighboring Jefferson and St. Clair counties. Officials said it was the worst to hit Tuscaloosa, home of the University of Alabama, since 1932 when more than 100 people were killed.


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