LOUISVILLE, Miss. - Ruth Bennett died clutching the last child left at her day-care center as a tornado wiped the building off its foundation. A firefighter who came upon the body gently pulled the toddler from her arms.
"It makes you just take a breath now," said next-door neighbor Kenneth Billingsley, who witnessed the scene at what was left of Ruth's Child Care Center in this logging town of 6,600. "It makes you pay attention to life."
Bennett, 53, was among at least 35 people killed in a two-day outbreak of twisters and other violent weather that pulverized homes from the Midwest to the Deep South. The child was alive when she was pulled from Bennett's arms and was taken to a hospital. Her condition was not known.
As crews in Mississippi and Alabama turned from search and rescue to cleanup, forecasters began to downplay their dire predictions of a third round of deadly twisters Tuesday. Meterologists said the storm system had weakened substantially by evening, although some tornado watches and warnings were still in effect for isolated areas.
In North Carolina, tornadoes touched down in five counties Tuesday, but the twisters caused only moderate damage to homes and toppled trees. Two cities in the state reported extensive flooding. No injuries were reported.
One of the hardest-hit areas Monday was Tupelo, Miss., where a gas station looked as if it had been stepped on by a giant.
Frances Gonzalez, who also owns a convenience store and Mexican restaurant attached to the service station, took cover with her three children and two employees in the store's cooler.
"My Lord, how can all this happen in just one second?" she said in Spanish.
On Tuesday, the growl of chain saws cut through the hazy morning in Tupelo. Massive oaks, knocked over like toys, blocked roads.
By the government's preliminary count, 11 tornadoes - including one that killed 15 people in Arkansas - struck the nation's midsection Sunday, and at least 25 ravaged the South on Monday, the National Weather Service Storm Prediction Center said.
Among those killed was a 21-year-old University of Alabama swimmer and dean's list student, John Servati, taking shelter in the basement of a Tuscaloosa home when a retaining wall fell on him.
His death - and that of at least two others in Alabama - came the day after the third anniversary of an outbreak of more than 60 tornadoes that killed more than 250 people across the state.
In Kimberly, Ala., north of Birmingham, the firehouse was among the buildings heavily damaged.