BAXTER, Tenn. (AP) — Billy Dyer’s cellphone blared out an emergency alert, then his wife Kathy’s phone followed, giving them just enough time to get downstairs and flip on a TV to check the news.
Then the tornado hit.
When the sun rose Tuesday morning, the Dyers emerged to find the walls around their corner bedroom gone. Their mattress was perched precariously on their bed’s headboard, with only sky all around.
“Thank God we had enough time to get downstairs to the basement or we would probably not be here,” Dyer said.
State emergency officials said 24 people died when fast-moving storms crossed Tennessee early Tuesday. Eighteen of them, including five pre-teen children, died in Putnam County, some 80 miles (130 kilometers) east of Nashville. Eighty-eight more were injured in the county.
The twister that hit Putnam County was classified EF-4, the second strongest, with winds of 175 mph, the National Weather Service said Wednesday evening.
The number of people unaccounted for dropped to three from 21, Putnam County Mayor Randy Porter said late Wednesday afternoon. The search is about 90% complete, Putnam County Sheriff Eddie Farris said.
“We have made some great progress today,” Porter said, adding it was a “time-consuming process” tracking down those still unaccounted for.
People across Nashville were awakened by outdoor sirens warning of the tornado danger early Tuesday. Sirens also sounded in parts of Putnam County, but in the Dyers’ Double Springs community, deep in the countryside, no such systems exist.
“If the cellphones didn’t have the emergency call, it wouldn’t have been good,” Dyer said.
The twisters ripped off brick facades, bent metal poles and shredded more than 140 buildings while burying people in piles of rubble and wrecked basements.
John C. Tune Airport, a smaller airport in Nashville that generally serves corporate and private aircraft, estimated $93 million in infrastructure damage, not accounting for 90 destroyed aircraft and other damaged vehicles. Nashville International Airport emerged unscathed.
In Nashville, 33,000 customers remained without power Wednesday, and Nashville Electric Service said most customers able to still receive power will be restored by Monday.
The storm has spurred an outpouring of private donations, including $1 million from Tennessee Titans controlling owner Amy Adams Strunk and the Titans Foundation.
Dyer’s own 34-year-old daughter, Brooke, sheltred in the basement of the house he grew up in next door, and then “called me screaming and crying.” Moments after the tornado passed, he ventured out in the dark and freed her from the rubble.
“Thank God my mother had a basement, a very small basement,” the 64-year-old Dyer said. “She was standing there between the crack of the door screaming and crying, top of the house gone.”
Gov. Bill Lee declared an emergency, sent the National Guard to assist search-and-rescue efforts and ordered flags over the state Capitol to fly at half-staff until Friday for those killed. President Donald Trump, who plans to visit Friday, tweeted: “The USA stands with the people of Tennessee 100%, whatever they need!”
National Weather Service survey teams indicated that the damage in Nashville and Wilson County to the east was inflicted by a tornado of at least EF-3 intensity, with wind speeds up to 165 mph (266 kmh). One twister wrecked homes and businesses across a 10-mile (16 kilometer) stretch of Nashville, including parts of downtown.
The tornado that struck Putnam County damaged more than 100 structures along a 2-mile (3.2-kilometer) path. wiping some homes from their foundations and scattering debris. The garage Dyer’s father used as an auto mechanic was scraped off its concrete slab, with metal rafters falling on his red Mustang with an Elvis Presley license plate.
Terry Cooler, an elder at the Double Springs Church of Christ, found only a hole in his roof, which he thinks was caused by flying debris. Much worse was the fate of the mother of a deacon at his church, who lost her home in the storm and then was rushed to a hospital for angioplasty and a stent.
“I’m sure the stress didn’t help her,” Cooler said. “She’s 86 and lost everything.”
Dyer and his neighbors spent the hours afterward picking through shattered glass, busted walls and drenched belongings for anything to salvage.
After surveying the damage Tuesday, Tennessee’s governor marveled at people’s resilience.
“In the worst of circumstances, the best of people comes out, and that’s what we’re seeing,” Lee said.
Associated Press contributors include Jonathan Mattise in Nashville and Kimberlee Kruesi, who traveled with the governor.