SANFORD, N.C. -- Lowe's store manager Michael Hollowell had heard the tornado warnings but his first clue that the danger was outside his front door came when he saw his staff running toward the back of the home improvement store.
More than 100 employees and customers screamed in near unison when the steel roof curled off overhead Saturday. The store was becoming part of the wreckage left by a ferocious storm system bristling with killer twisters that ripped through the South.
"You could hear all the steel ripping. People screaming in fear for their lives," Hollowell told The Associated Press on Sunday.
Those in the store did not become part of the death toll that totaled at least 45 across six states, and officials said quick action by Hollowell and his employees helped them all make it out alive in Sanford, about 40 miles south of Raleigh.
In all of Lee County, where Sanford is located, officials said there was just one confirmed fatality during the storm, which claimed at least 21 lives statewide, damaged hundreds of homes and left a swath of destruction unmatched by any spring storm since the mid-1980s.
Survivors were left to recall miraculous escapes.
In the Bladen County community of Ammon, about 70 miles south of Raleigh, Audrey McKoy and her husband Milton saw a tornado bearing down on them over the tops of the pine trees that surround the seven or eight mobile homes that make up their neighborhood. He glanced at a nearby farm and saw the winds lifting pigs and other animals in the sky.
"It looked just like 'The Wizard of Oz,"' Audrey said.
They took shelter in their laundry room, and after emerging once the storm had passed, were disoriented for a moment. The twister had turned their mobile home around and they were standing in their backyard.
Milton found three bodies in their neighborhood, including 92-year-old Marchester Avery and his 50-year-old son, Tony, who died in adjacent mobile homes. He stopped his wife from coming over to see.
"You don't want to look at this," he told her.
CBS News correspondent Cynthia Bowers reports that no place took a harsher blow than tiny Bertie County, population 20,000, where 11 people were killed, including Kim Lafferty's in-laws.
"I just had a gut feeling when I couldn't get them on the phone," Lafferty told CBS News. "I knew how close it had hit."
The storms crushed trailer parks and brought life in the center of the state's second-largest city to a virtual standstill. It was the worst outbreak in the state since 22 twisters in 1984 killed 42 people.
Gov. Beverly Perdue planned to tour hard-hit areas in three counties Monday. The devastation she saw Sunday left her near tears, she said. The storm pummeled bustling cities and remote rural communities. One of Perdue's stops was downtown Raleigh, where fallen trees blocked major thoroughfares and damage to the Shaw University campus forced it to cancel the remainder of its spring semester.
Perdue said she'd been in contact with President Obama, who pledged his support, and that federal emergency management workers were already on the ground.
"We have in North Carolina a tremendous relationship with our federal partners, and have been through this so many times," she said. "That's not a good thing. That's a bad thing."
One place Perdue was scheduled to visit was Bertie County, where storms were deadliest. At least 11 residents died, Bertie County Manager Zee Lamb said, including three members of the same family.
Jean Burkett lived near Roy and Barbara Lafferty and Barbara's mother, Helen White, in Colerain. Burkett and Barbara Lafferty graduated from high school together in 1964 and had always been neighbors. On Sunday, at her relatively untouched home, Burkett pointed out a row of four or five about 400 yards away that had been demolished. The Laffertys and Helen White died in their home.
"The neighborhood has lost some mighty fine neighbors," Burkett said. "It's the worst thing we've ever seen."