JOPLIN, Missouri – Rescue crews clawed through rubble searching for survivors Monday in the wake of the deadliest single tornado to strike the United States in nearly 60 years.
The massive twister cut a swath of destruction four miles (6.4 kilometers) long and three quarters of a mile (more than a kilometer) wide through the Missouri town of Joplin.
The Associated Press reported that the deadly tornado killed at least 116 people.
Some 1,150 wounded people were treated in area hospitals, the Joplin Globe reported.
Flames and smoke from broken gas lines shot up through the wreckage as block after block of homes and businesses were reduced to rubble and cars were tossed so violently that they turned into crumpled heaps of metal.
“The number of folks that we’ve lost continues to rise,” Missouri Governor Jay Nixon told CNN.
“But the bottom line is we still believe there are folks that are alive underneath the rubble and we’re working hard to save them.”
Heavy rain, lightening and strong winds hampered efforts Monday as hundreds of exhausted rescue workers carefully picked their way through the rubble with the help of sniffer dogs.
“It’s been very difficult,” Nixon said. “You have to move through there very gingerly because you could cause something to fall.”
Disaster struck on Sunday evening when, with little warning, the monster twister packing winds of up to 200 miles (320 kilometers) an hour tore through the center of town.
Rescuers worked through the night to try to find people trapped in their homes, relying on torchlights as they listened for terrified cries from survivors piercing through the blackness.
More than 2,000 buildings — or about a third of the city of 50,000 near the border with Kansas and Oklahoma — were damaged or destroyed.
Jeff Law, 23, was able to take shelter in a storm cellar and was overwhelmed by what he saw when he emerged.
“I’ve lived in this neighborhood my entire life, and I didn’t know where I was,” Law told the Springfield News-Leader. “Everything was unrecognizable, completely unrecognizable. It’s like Armageddon.”
Roger Dedick used a metal bar to pry himself out of his crushed home only to find that one of his neighbors had been killed.
“That’s all that’s left,” he told AFP as he pointed to the cement foundation.
Caring for the injured was made more difficult because the main hospital, Saint John’s Regional Medical Center, had to be evacuated after suffering a direct hit — the tornado ripped off its roof and smashed all its windows.
A tangled medical helicopter lay in the rubble of crushed cars, broken glass and medical records strewn outside the hospital.
“It’s a war zone,” said Scott Meeker of The Joplin Globe newspaper.
“We’ve got hundreds of wounded being treated at Memorial Hall (auditorium), but they were quickly overwhelmed and ran out of supplies, so they’ve opened up a local school as a triage center.”
Nixon declared a state of emergency and activated the National Guard to help out after one of the worst disasters in the state’s history.
President Barak Obama sent his “deepest condolences” to victims and called Nixon to assure him that the federal government would provide whatever assistance was needed.
“We commend the heroic efforts by those who have responded and who are working to help their friends and neighbors at this very difficult time,” the president said in a statement sent from Air Force One as he flew to Europe.
It was the deadliest of 73 tornadoes reported to the National Weather Service in nine central states on Saturday and Sunday and comes less than a month after a horrific tornado outbreak left 354 dead across seven US states.
“This is certainly one of the most devastating scenes I’ve ever seen,” said Perry Elkins, a former army medic who was managing a shelter set up by the Red Cross.
Officials said the last single twister to wreak such loss of life occurred in 1953 in Worcester, Massachusetts, when a tornado killed 90 people.
On Saturday, a deadly tornado pummeled the east Kansas town of Reading, killing a man and damaging an estimated 80 percent of Reading’s structures, mostly wood-frame buildings.
Meanwhile, a tornado was also responsible for the death of one person in Minneapolis, Minnesota, authorities said. At least 30 others in that city and its suburbs were injured.
With additional reporting by Raw Story