Tenn. storm survivor: My dad saved 15 lives

Amy Womack, left, and her 11-year-old daughter Alexis Nelson look into the family room of her parents' house Friday, April 29, 2011 in Cleveland, Tenn. Womack said 15 family members and friends were urged into the basement shortly before a tornado destroyed the home.
AP Photo/Wade Payne

CLEVELAND, Tenn. - Sitting outside her ripped apart house, Amy Womack tearfully recalled being trapped under debris but surviving with 14 relatives and friends after her daddy got them in the basement just before a storm that killed neighbors all around.

The Bradley County woman thanked a parade of friends, government agency employees and strangers who drove up Friday offering free meals, bottled water and asking if they could help.

Womack said her dad, 52-year-old Wayne Burgess, saved their lives. She said he monitored the weather all day Wednesday and just ahead of the screeching winds told them to pull a mattress over the children.

In the rural Blue Springs neighborhood, the storm hurled a 3-month-old girl from her home to her death in a pasture and killed two other people.

"If it hadn't been for my daddy every one of us would have been killed," Womack said. She said everyone climbed out and no one was seriously hurt.

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The death toll of the storm climbed to 34 Friday in Tennessee when officials in Franklin, south of Nashville, reported the death of a woman who was struck by a tree branch in her yard.

Across the South, volunteers have been pitching in as the death toll from Wednesday's storms keeps rising. At least 339 people were killed across seven states, including at least 248 in Alabama, as the storm system spawned tornadoes through several states. There were 34 deaths in Mississippi, 34 in Tennessee, 15 in Georgia, five in Virginia, two in Louisiana and one in Kentucky.

It was the largest death toll since March 18, 1925, when 747 people were killed in storms that raged through Missouri, Illinois and Indiana.

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In Tennessee, the system that ripped bark from pine trees left a swath of destruction from near Chattanooga in the southeastern corner to the northeast corner. Many roads remained closed because of downed trees and power lines. Hundreds were homeless and thousands were without power.

The Tennessee Valley Authority, which supplies virtually all of the electricity to Tennessee customers, said at noon Friday that 133,000 customers were without power.

The National Weather Service had eight assessment teams working Friday to find evidence of tornado touchdowns and wind speeds. The largest appeared to have been an EF4 tornado that cut a 35-mile swath of death and destruction across northeastern Hamilton County near Chattanooga and neighboring Bradley County.

Burgess, a farmer, said Friday that he had a bad feeling about the weather Wednesday and picked up his granddaughter early from a babysitter who lives in a doublewide mobile home. He said he stepped outside and saw a "black sky" approaching further east than usual. That's when he told everybody to get in the basement and to put a mattress over the children, something he said he learned years ago.

"If we would have been in that room where we were all sitting we would have most likely been gone," Burgess said Friday.

Burgess said he had once considered the basement to be unnecessary but plans to rebuild his house.

"Now I wouldn't have one without it," he said.

Womack, 31, said she had been in a kind of shock Thursday but Friday she and other family members were "in good spirits" about surviving but also sad about the destruction.

She said the family's horses, dogs and rabbits somehow survived. A kitten was still missing Friday.

"I can't come back to my mama's," Womack said. "It's not the same."