At first glance, the brick-and-steel framed school in Henryville looked like no match for a tornado, but it protected a handful of students and adults who found themselves trapped in a no-man's land. NBC's Lester Holt reports.
Updated at 2:30 p.m. ET: HENRYVILLE, Ind. -- Stories of tragedy and survival were being reported across the Midwest and South on Saturday, but perhaps none as dramatic as those coming from students and school staff in this devastated Indiana town.
A massive twister tore through the area housing Henryville's elementary, middle and high schools just after school was dismissed early due to warnings.
Some buses had to return just after leaving the schools as they saw the twister coming. The 11 children on one of those got off and were ushered into a school building just before the bus was flung into a nearby restaurant.
The driver of another bus had to stop and ask a homeowner to take the students in. "We got on the buses, we started heading to my house and the tornado was following us," one child recounted. "Luckily this woman was so generous to let us stay in her basement."
Henryville Elementary School Principal Glenn Riggs told NBC's TODAY show that he and some 40 students and staff took shelter in three small offices, lying on the floor.
"There was like a decompression," he said. "It felt almost like your skin was going to be peeled off your face and your ears popped. And of course people were a little upset; some of the children were upset."
When the twister hit, he added, "it was just crash, bang, break ... we knew the school was going up around us, and then the ceilings began to fall apart," sending dust and other debris to the ground before it finally stopped.
Incredible tales of survival emerge as dozens are dead and entire towns are destroyed from a massive outbreak of storms from the Great Lakes to the Gulf coast. NBC's Tom Costello reports.
Amazingly, not a single injury was reported at the campus, much of which was destroyed, or among students sent home by bus.
The students still at school after the twister hit were taken to the local community center to reunite with parents -- but only after a round of baseball-sized hail pounded what was left of the schools.
House 'shook once, and it was gone'
In Washington County, Ind., residents described seeing a massive tornado come over a hill and plow through a grove of trees, which looked almost like a line of bulldozers eight wide had rolled through, crushing the land.
When Gene Lewellyn, his son and his son's 7-year-old daughter saw the tornado come over the hill, they rushed to the basement of his one-story brick home and covered themselves with a carpet. Lewellyn's son laid over his daughter to protect her, and then a black cloud enveloped the house.
Severe storms and tear through the midwest and southern states.
"It just shook once, and it (the house) was gone," said Lewellyn, 62.
His family was safe, but their home was reduced to a pile of bricks with sheet metal wrapped around splintered trees. Pieces of insulation coated the ground, and across the street a large trailer picked up by the storm had landed on top of a boat. Lewellyn spent Saturday picking through the debris in 38-degree cold.
"Right now, we are not sure what we are going to do," he said. "We will get out what we can get out. Hopefully, we won't have to argue from the insurance company very much."
Child, great grandparents killed
In Chelsea, a man, woman and their 4-year-old great-grandchild died. The child and his mother were huddled in a basement when the storm hit and sucked the child out of her hands.
The mother survived, but her 70-year-old grandparents were upstairs; both died.
"She was in the cellar with the boy when the tornado hit. It blew him right out of her hands," neighbor Tony Williams said. "They found the bodies in the field outside," he added, referring to the boy and his great grandparents.
Williams said 60 local school children took refuge in his store overnight. "The bus drivers did a great job. We had them in a back room with no windows," he said.
Across southeastern Indiana, neighbors are helping neighbors and even strangers recover from devastating storms. NBC's John Yang reports.
In Salem, about 60 miles west of Chelsea, a 2-year-old girl was found alive in a field alone. The girl was in critical condition.
'I just held on to her,' dad says of daughter
In Kentucky, Stephen Burton heard a twister coming in West Liberty and pulled his 23-year-old daughter to safety, just before the tornado destroyed the second story of the family's home.
"I held onto her and made it to the center of the house, next to a closet," Burton said. "I just held onto her, and I felt like I was getting sand-blasted on my back."
At least 75 people were hurt in West Liberty, where the downtown area was "just devastated," said one official.
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.
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