FAYETTEVILLE, Tenn. — Gov. Bill Haslam planned to survey the devastation wrought by a deadly tornado in Lincoln County today.
Monday night's tornado started near the Alabama line and cut a path to the northeastern corner of the county, leaving two dead and at least 25 homes and one elementary school destroyed.
"It was very chaotic for several hours," Lincoln County Sherriff Murray Blackwelder said. "By the grace of God, we were able to get by with only two fatalities out of this mass destruction."
The National Weather Service has not yet made a final call on the on the strength of the tornado, but set a preliminary rating of EF-3 with winds between 136 mph and 165 mph.
Haslam was scheduled to view the damage both from a helicopter and on the ground this morning.
Authorities on Tuesday identified the victims as John and Karen Prince. They were killed when their mobile home was thrown several hundred yards from its foundation.
Rickey Shelton, who lives up the street from the Prince home, was in his house when his son called to warn him that severe weather was headed his way.
Shelton said he huddled in an interior hallway with his wife as the tornado raged around him.
"I put my arm around her and said a prayer," he said. "You don't know how long it is. It feels like forever, and then it feels like it's quick."
The tornado tore off the roof and destroyed much of the rest of the house, but left the Sheltons unharmed.
Shelton's daughter Tiffani Danner, who lives across from the couple killed by the tornado, had left her home before the storm and said she learned of the Princes' fate when she returned the next day.
"We pulled up, and were in shocked seeing our own home," she said. "But then we saw Karen's father, and he said 'John and Karen are gone — They didn't make it.'"
Families taking shelter in the South Lincoln Elementary School left after the first storm wave passed, only to have the tornado strike the school about a half-hour later, said Sheriff Blackwelder.
Blackwelder said the school is likely irreparable, but said he still feels "very, very blessed" that no one was in the school when the tornado hit.
Darrell Haney, who lives behind the school, said he thought his community was out of the woods when TV switched back from tornado warnings to regular programming.
Then, live weather reports cut back in, warning of a possible tornado as little as a minute away from his home.
Haney quickly retrieved two grandchildren and huddled in an interior bathroom with his wife, daughter and son-in-law. Almost immediately, he said, a tree crashed into a front room where one of the children had been sleeping, and the roof was lifted off of the master bedroom.
"The house is being torn apart around you, and we're just crying out, 'God protect us,'" Haney said. "Because at that point you're totally hopeless and helpless."
His church was destroyed. The school bus he drives was heavily damaged. Still Haney, a pastor, tried to be upbeat.
"Everything's gone," he said. "But the main thing is everyone's OK, the lives are taken care of."
Sherriff Blackwelder said seven people were treated for injuries and 25 homes and a school were destroyed.
There also were widespread power outages due to a damaged transmission tower. Scattered outages were also reported in a handful of other counties. Flooding was reported in Moore and Maury counties.
The National Weather Service in Huntsville, Ala., said it made a preliminary determination that the area as hit by an EF-3 tornado but was still studying the details before making a final call.
State emergency management officials said no other county requested state assistance for severe weather, which is blamed for at least 35 deaths across the Midwest and the South.
Becca Tanner, 19, said she was in her mobile home when TV reports warned of a possible tornado approaching. She had just enough time to seek refuge in a bathroom before the home was lifted into the air and tossed dozens of yards toward the street.
"I just remember flipping and flying," she said. "I just shut my eyes and it kept going."
Tanner, who emerged with bruises but no serious injuries, was sifting through the wreckage with friends and family Tuesday.
"I just don't know where to start," she said.