HARRISBURG, Ill. — Twisters roared through the nation's heartland in the early morning darkness Wednesday, flattening entire blocks of homes in small-town Illinois and Kansas and killing at least nine people.
Winds also ripped through the country music mecca of Branson, Mo., damaging some of the city's famous theaters just days before the start of the busy tourist season.
In Harrisburg, a town of 9,000 in southern Illinois, residents sorted through piles of debris and remembered 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.
In Branson, an apparent twister seemed to hopscotch up the city's main roadway. At least 37 people were reported hurt, mostly with cuts and bruises.
"We were blessed with several things — the time of year and certainly the time of day, when people were not in their vehicles or outdoors," said Mayor Raeanne Presley, noting that during Branson's peak season, up to 60,000 visitors would have been in the city on any given day and staying in many of the hotels that were damaged.
"If it was a week later, it'd be a different story," said Bill Tirone, assistant general manager for the 530-room downtown Hilton hotel, where the intense winds shattered windows and sucked furniture away. Hotel workers were able to get all guests to safety.
John Moore, owner of the damaged Cakes-n-Creams '50s Diner, said the tornado seemed to target the city's main strip, plowing through the entertainment district and a convention center.
"The theater next to me kind of exploded. It went everywhere," Moore said. "The hotels on the two sides of me lost their roofs."
Back in Harrisburg, where six people were killed, scientists said the tornado was an EF4, the second-highest rating given to twisters based on damage.
The storm was 200 yards wide with winds up to 170 mph, meteorologist Rick Shanklin said.
The winds were strong enough to blow the walls off some rooms at the Harrisburg Medical Center, leaving disheveled beds and misplaced furniture. The staff had enough warning to move the most endangered patients. Then the staff heard the walls collapse, officials said.
The hospital discharged patients who could go home or moved them to other medical facilities. But hospital staff also had to confront an influx of injured.
"Helicopters have been coming in and out here all morning," said the hospital's CEO, Vince Ashley.
Osman and his sister sorted through twisted debris and chunks of pink insulation at the site of their mother's duplex, looking for photos and financial records.
They found 10 old picture slides that were among a collection of hundreds. Some were caked in mud and damaged by water.
"My mother was a Christian," Osman said. "I know she's in a better place. That is the only thing getting me through this."
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 EF2, 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.
Corey Mead, lead forecaster at the Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla., said a broad cold front was slamming into warm, humid air over much of the eastern half of the nation.
At least 16 tornado sightings were reported from Nebraska and Kansas across southern Missouri to Illinois and Kentucky, according to the storm center, an arm of the National Weather Service.
Near downtown Branson, a strip mall lay in tatters, its roof missing and several walls gone. About 170 boats and several docks were destroyed on Table Rock Lake.
Branson has long been a tourist destination for visitors attracted to the beauty of the surrounding Ozarks. But the city rose to prominence in the 1990s because of its theaters, which drew country music stars, including Merle Haggard and Crystal Gayle, as well as other musical celebrities, such as Chubby Checker and Andy Williams.
Branson is about 110 miles southeast of Joplin, which was devastated by a monstrous twister last May that killed 161 people. Memories of the disaster fueled residents and guests to quickly take cover after the sirens sounded early Wednesday.
"I think so many people from Branson went over to help in Joplin, and having seen that, it was fresh on our minds," said Presley, the mayor, whose family owns the Presley's Theater on the main strip. "We all reached for our loved ones a little sooner and got to the basement a little faster."
Branson leaders insisted Wednesday that the city remains open for business, suggesting that any repairs and rebuilding would happen in a matter of days.
Tornado season normally starts in March, but it isn't unusual to see severe storms earlier in the year.
The system also lashed parts of Kansas, Arkansas, Oklahoma and Kentucky, where three buildings belonging to an Elizabethtown trucking company were heavily damaged. Three trailers parked in a lot outside were pushed into each other, toppled like dominoes.
"It picked the whole building up," said Jim Owen, son of the owner of Harry Owen Trucking. "It would take a group of 20 men five days with equipment to tear that down."
The Midwest and South are to get a reprieve from the menacing weather Thursday, ahead of another strong storm system expected Friday.
Ryan Jewell, a meteorologist with the Storm Prediction Center, said the approaching system is forecast to take a similar path as Wednesday's storms and has the potential for even more damage.
On Friday, he said, both the Midwest and South would be "right in the bull's eye."