ADEL, Ga. (AP) – Bonnie and Wayne Collier were jolted awake in their mobile home by a cellphone weather alert early Sunday. They jumped up, turned on the TV, saw a tornado warning and decided to run.
“We heard the Code Red,” said Bonnie Collier, 65. “He told me, ‘Get up. We’ve got to get out.”
Quickly, they headed to a friend’s nearby building just down the road from their mobile home near Cecil, Georgia. There they met up with their son, daughter-in-law and three grandchildren – ages 5, 7 and 9 – who they awoke at their mobile home.
They arrived just ahead of a tornado.
“My husband yelled, ‘Get under the tables!’ and then it just came right over the top of us like a freight train.”
When they emerged, the home they had been sleeping in was blown clear across the street, flattened and shattered to pieces. Her car and his pickup truck were buried under debris. But the other home was undamaged.
“If we had been five minutes later, they probably would have found us out here somewheres dead.”
An unusual midwinter barrage of tornadoes and thunderstorms over the weekend was blamed for at least 20 deaths across the Deep South.
Collier returned Monday to pick through the wreckage, pulling out clothes and family photos with a mix of smiles and tears.
She laughed as 5-year-old granddaughter Rylee ran up, holding a photo and excitedly shouting “Mimi! This one’s of you.” But moments earlier, she choked back sobs talking about how she could have lost much more than her home.
“Material things can be put back and replaced and family can’t. And I’m just glad we got out OK,” she said, wiping away a tear.
Mobile homes were especially vulnerable to the storms, with seven people alone killed early Sunday in one trailer park community a few miles away – Sunshine Acres – in the community of Adel.
Just the day after Devocheo Williams moved into Sunshine Acres, his mobile home – and many of those around him – were demolished as the winds descended before dawn with terrifying swiftness.
“The whole trailer park was gone in 15 seconds,” Williams said, describing a funnel cloud that appeared to loop back around and hit the place a second time. “It looked like a ball of fire was going 100 mph.”
Williams said Monday he saw a little girl picked up by the winds and tossed into a ditch. Nearby, the girl’s mother and a baby were trapped in rubble. He said he helped dig them out.
Not everyone could be saved.
“I was walking by dead bodies of little kids and grown people,” Williams said.
Georgia reported 15 deaths Sunday, and four people died Saturday in Mississippi. In northern Florida, a woman died after a tree crashed into her home in Lake City as a storm swept through.
The National Weather Service said 39 possible tornadoes were reported over the weekend. The agency sent out teams to examine the damage and confirm how many of the storms were twisters, which can happen any time of year but are far more common in the spring and early summer.
Elsewhere in southern Georgia, a tornado slammed into Albany, a city of 76,000 people, Sunday afternoon and carved a path of destruction a half mile wide in places. The National Weather Service rated the twister as at least an EF-2, meaning it packed winds of 111 to 135 mph, if not greater.
Anthony Mitchell of Albany was home with his pregnant wife and three children when a tornado warning on TV sent them scrambling. They crouched in a hallway as the twister started taking their home apart.
“The windows exploded, the doors flew off the hinges, the sheet rock started to rip off the walls and fly out the windows,” Mitchell said. “The trailer started to lift up. And about that time a tree fell on the trailer, and I think that’s what held the trailer in place from flying away.”
Three people were later found dead at Big Pine Estates, where Mitchell’s family lives. A fourth body was discovered at a home just outside the trailer park.
Mitchell lost his home and marveled that he didn’t lose his life, too.
A day later, Aretha Allen prayed aloud in front of the First Baptist Church where a shelter was set up for the survivors of Sunshine Park.
Allen said her niece and the niece’s brother both lived in a mobile home there, and she drove out to try to help them after hearing the park had been hit.
“We were looking, looking,” Allen said, “but couldn’t find them.”
Authorities late Monday confirmed seven people were found dead at Sunshine Acres, her relatives included.
“They died in the storm trying to save her grandchildren,” she said, adding that the children had survived. “I know they’ve gone on to Jesus.”