CHICAGO (AFP) — A gigantic tornado killed at least eight people as it tore across the Midwestern state of Oklahoma, flattening homes and tossing cars into the air, officials said Wednesday.
The out-of-season twister destroyed dozens of mobile homes, snapped power lines and bowled over buildings, leaving more than 29,000 residents without power across the state.
"There's nothing left ... twisted metal, cars turned upside down, cars in trees," Oklahoma highway patrol trooper Bryant Harris, who lives in the devastated hamlet of Lone Grove, told the Tulsa World newspaper.
The twister, that was almost half a mile (a kilometer) across, ripped through Lone Grove shortly before 7:30 pm Tuesday (0130 GMT Wednesday), one of at least three that touched down in Oklahoma and Texas, officials said.
Reports initially said 15 were killed, but the Oklahoma governor's office told AFP only eight fatalities had been confirmed.
The national guard was called in to assist with search and rescue operations early Wednesday, the spokesman added.
"Our thoughts and prayers are with the people of Lone Grove and all of the other Oklahoma communities that have been impacted by the latest wave of severe weather," Governor Brad Henry said in a statement.
"We know we have lost many lives in Lone Grove and we pray the losses do not rise any higher."
Forecasters said the twisters barrelling through the famed "Tornado Alley" have come earlier than usual this year, fuelled by unusually warm, wet weather.
"It's February, but we're going to treat it like May," said Mike Foster, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service's Norman, Oklahoma office, speaking to local media.
Television networks showed footage of roofs torn off homes and buildings reduced to rubble by the storms' devastating winds.
Rescue workers had been forced to suspend their search for survivors shortly after 1:00 am (0700 GMT) Wednesday because they did not have enough lights or manpower to safely work through the jagged metal and livewires hidden in rubble and debris.
"It's just too dangerous," Sheriff Ken Grace told The Oklahoman newspaper. "We don't need to be adding any more injuries to what we already have."
Another tornado hit near the state's main city of Oklahoma City, forcing diners and employees of a Mexican restaurant to huddle in the walk-in freezer as the building around them rattled.
"It was just unbelievable that something could come that quick," said Andrea Stephens, who emerged to find her van dented and shards of glass wedged into her seats.
In the town of Edmond, a tornado destroyed an auto body shop shortly after the manager left for the day. "It's just surreal," Michael Jerry told the daily. "The steel girders are in a ball."
The National Weather Service has issued tornado watches for the area to the east of Oklahoma.
One deputy sheriff told The Oklahoman that entire families were killed in a trailer park. "I'm scared to death to see what daylight brings," he said.
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