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Tornado kills at least 8 in N.C.; storms blamed for 12 deaths

RIEGELWOOD, N.C. — A tornado flipped cars, shredded trees and ripped mobile homes to pieces in this little riverside community early Thursday, killing at least eight people, authorities said.
    The disaster raised the two-day death toll from a devastating line of thunderstorms that swept across the South to 12.
    Kip Godwin, chairman of the Columbus County Board of Commissioners, said just before 5 p.m. that authorities have mostly concluded their search efforts and they have accounted for everyone on their list of missing persons. Hospital officials said four people, including four children, were in critical condition. A fifth critical patient was upgraded to stable condition late in the day.
    ‘‘We won’t know for a while what their status will be,’’ Godwin said of the other critical patients.
    The storms that began Wednesday unleashed tornadoes and straight-line winds that overturned tractor-trailers, uprooted trees and knocked down power lines across the South.
    ‘‘It almost looked like the mobile homes had exploded,’’ said Alton Edwards, a member of a volunteer fire-and-rescue team. ‘‘There were cars on top of one another. It’s just about as bad as it gets.’’
    In Louisiana, a man died Wednesday when a tornado struck his home. A utility worker checking powerlines in South Carolina during Thursday’s storm was electrocuted. In North Carolina, two people died in car crashes as heavy rain pelted the state, dropping as much as five inches in some areas.
    Off shore, a Coast Guard helicopter lowered a pump to a fishing boat that was taking on water in 15-foot seas about 50 miles southeast of Charleston. There was one crewman aboard the 34-foot boat, which the Coast Guard escorted back to land.
    The tornado that struck Riegelwood — located on the Cape Fear River about 20 miles west of the coastal city of Wilmington — hit shortly after 6:30 a.m., Easley said. As many as 40 mobile homes were damaged before the tornado hopped N.C. 87 and leveled three brick homes.
    ‘‘There was no warning. There was no time,’’ said Cissy Kennedy, 48, a radiologist’s assistant who lives in the trailer park. ‘‘It just came out from nowhere.’’
    Debris from homes damaged by the tornado — carpet, a laundry basket, food — was scattered along the roadway. The storm dumped a minivan in a ditch, and a open refrigerator that still had food inside was filled rainwater.
    ‘‘It was dark, with like a string hanging down with debris coming out,’’ 42-year-old Clevette Brown said of the tornado. Her home along the highway was lightly damaged. ‘‘I backed up, but I couldn’t get out (of my car) until it passed.’’
    Searchers had found eight bodies in the wreckage by late afternoon, and Godwin said, ‘‘We’re still reserving the right that it may change.’’
    Officials at hospitals in Columbus County and neighboring New Hanover County said they were treating 13 people Thursday afternoon with storm-related injuries.
    Easley said damage assessment teams wouldn’t begin work until Friday, and only then would he decide on whether to seek a federal or state disaster declaration
    ‘‘We’re going to do everything we can in the meantime to help these people who were hurt,’’ he said.
    Elsewhere in North Carolina, Easley said, minor damage was reported in Wayne, Duplin, Lincoln, Iredell and Rowan counties. The storm initially knocked out power to 45,000 customers in the state, but that utilities had restored power to all but 13,500 as of 2:30 p.m., Easley said.
    In South Carolina, utility worker Ken Butler, 41, was electrocuted as he worked from a bucket truck to clear power lines that had been downed when the thunderstorms moved through Bamberg. Record-setting rain in that state also flooding streets.
    On Wednesday, a tornado cut a path about two miles wide and three or four miles long in Greensburg, La., north of New Orleans, toppling trees and damaging buildings and power lines, said Maj. Michael Martin of the St. Helena Parish Sheriff’s Office. A 43-year-old man was killed when the trailer he was in was destroyed, he said.
    ‘‘That home just exploded,’’ said Gordon Burgess, president of neighboring Tangipahoa Parish.
    ———
    Associated Press Writer Mike Baker contributed to this report from Raleigh.

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