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Dozens of tornadoes ripped through the South, flattening homes and businesses and killing at least 215 people in six states in the deadliest outbreak in nearly 40 years.

As day broke Thursday, people in hard-hit Alabama surveyed flattened, debris-strewn neighborhoods and told of pulling bodies from rubble after the storms passed Wednesday afternoon and evening.

"It happened so fast it was unbelievable," said Jerry Stewart, a 63-year-old retired firefighter who was picking through the remains of his son's wrecked home in Pleasant Grove, a suburb of Birmingham. "They said the storm was in Tuscaloosa and it would be here in 15 minutes. And before I knew it, it was here."

He and his wife, along with their daughter and two grandchildren, survived by hiding under their front porch. Friends down the street who did the same weren't so lucky — Stewart said he pulled out the bodies of two neighbors whose home was ripped off its foundation.

Alabama's state emergency management agency said it had confirmed 131 deaths, while there were 32 in Mississippi, 30 in Tennessee, 13 in Georgia, eight in Virginia and one in Kentucky.

The National Weather Service's Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla., said it received 137 tornado reports into Wednesday night.

Some of the worst damage was in Tuscaloosa, a city of more than 83,000 that is home to the University of Alabama. Neighborhoods there were leveled by a massive tornado caught on video by a tower-mounted news camera that barreled through late Wednesday afternoon.


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