“Just keep those families in your prayers,” Lee County Coroner Bill Harris said, two days after the disaster. “It’s a tragic situation.”
The search for victims in and around the devastated rural community of Beauregard continued, with crews using heavy equipment to lift large chunks of wreckage. But Sheriff Jay Jones said the list of missing people had shrunk from dozens to just seven or eight.
“We are still conducting some searches, sifting through piles of debris where there may be people or animals,” said Opelika Fire Chief Byron Prather. “We haven’t given up hope.”
Four children were killed, ages 6, 8, 9 and 10.
The dead also included 53-year-old David Wayne Dean, whose body was found in a neighbor’s yard after the twister demolished his mobile home Sunday afternoon. He was known as “Roaddog” for his love of Harley-Davidson motorcycles.
“Our son found him,” his widow, Carol Dean, said between sobs. “He was done and gone before we got to him. My life is gone. He was the reason I lived, the reason that I got up.”
After the tornado passed, she rushed home from work at Walmart and pushed past sheriff’s deputies to be with husband one last time. Picking through the ruins of their home, she found her wedding dress and a Father’s Day note to her husband that read, “Daddy, I love you to pieces.”
The tornado was an EF4 packing winds estimated at 170 mph (274 kph) and chewed a path of destruction up to nine-tenths of a mile (1.4 kilometers) wide in Alabama for nearly 27 miles (43 kilometers), the National Weather Service said. Ninety people were injured, it said.
Around Beauregard, an unincorporated area of roughly 10,000 people near the Georgia state line, mobile homes tucked among tall pine trees were swept from their bases and smashed into unrecognizable piles of rubble. Toys, clothes, insulation, water heaters and pieces of metal were scattered across the hillsides where the pines were snapped in half.
Law enforcement teams searching for victims used dogs and heat-detecting drones.
It was the deadliest tornado to hit the U.S. since May 2013, when an EF5 twister killed 24 people in Moore, Oklahoma.
Government teams surveying storm damage confirmed Tuesday that at least 18 tornadoes struck on Sunday in Alabama, Florida, Georgia and South Carolina alone.