HARRISBURG, Ill. (AP) - A pre-dawn twister flattened entire blocks of homes in a small Illinois town Wednesday as violent storms ravaged the Midwest and South, killing at least 12 people in three states.
Winds also ripped through the country music mecca of Branson damaging some of the city's famous theaters just days before the start of the city's busy tourist season.
The tornado that blasted Harrisburg in southern Illinois, killing six, was an EF4, the second-highest rating given to twisters based on damage. Scientists said it was 200 yards wide with winds up to 170 mph.
By midday, townspeople in the community of 9,000 were sorting through piles of debris and remembering their dead while the winds still howled around them.
Not long after the storm, Darrell Osman raced to his mother's home, arriving just in time to speak to her before she was taken to a hospital with a head injury, a severe cut to her neck and a broken arm and leg.
"She was conscious. I wouldn't say she was coherent. There were more mumbles than anything," he said. "She knew we were there."
Mary Osman died a short time later.
The twister that raked Branson seemed to hopscotch up the city's main roadway, moving from side to side.
As sirens blared, Derrick Washington stepped out of his motel room just long enough to see a greenish-purple sky. Then he heard tornado roaring up the strip.
"Every time the tornado hit a building, you could see it exploding," he said.
At least 37 people were reported hurt, but most suffered only cuts and bruises. After the start of Branson's peak tourist season in mid-March, up to 60,000 visitors would have been in hotels on any given day.
Just six people were staying at J.R.'s Motor Inn, and all of them escaped injury by taking refuge in bathtubs. Engineers deemed the building a total loss.
Lori McGauley, manager of the inn, choked back tears thinking about what might have been.
"We had 25 people booked for next week," McGauley said. "If this happened a week later, we would have lost some people."
At the 530-room downtown Hilton, intense winds shattered windows and sucked furniture away. Hotel workers were able to get all guests to safety.
Looking at the city's main strip, it was difficult to believe there weren't more serious injuries. A strip mall was nearly completely demolished. The Legends Theater, the Andy Williams Moon River Theater and the Branson Variety Theater all sustained significant damage.
The Veterans Memorial Museum was in shambles, and a small military jet that sat in front of the museum was blown apart.
Branson Variety Theater's 1,600-seat auditorium was intact, but the lobby and gift shop were virtually destroyed. It could be nearly two months before the theater's popular Twelve Irish Tenors and Shake Rattle & Roll shows perform again.
Back in Harrisburg, the winds were strong enough to blow the walls off some rooms at the local medical center, leaving disheveled beds and misplaced furniture. The staff had enough warning to move the most endangered patients. Then they heard the walls collapse, officials said.
In Missouri, one person was killed in a trailer park in the town of Buffalo, about 35 miles north of Springfield. Two more fatalities were reported in the Cassville and Puxico areas.
The tornado that barreled through the tiny eastern Kansas town of Harveyville was an EF-2, with wind speeds of 120 to 130 mph, state officials said. It left much of the community in rubble.
The twisters were spawned by a powerful storm system that blew down from the Rockies on Tuesday and was headed toward the East Coast.