ENTERPRISE, Ala. (AP) _ With no time to send students home as storms raced their way, officials herded Erin Garcia and her high school classmates into the halls.
Outside, the skies grew so dark that lights at the airport came on in the middle of the day.
Then the tornado sirens started up.
And inside Enterprise High School, the lights went out.
``I was just sitting there praying the whole time,'' said Garcia, a 17-year-old senior.
As students and staff took shelter, a twister blew out the school's walls and collapsed its roof, killing at least five people Thursday. The death toll varied wildly, with officials reporting 15 dead at the school at one point, then backing off that figure.
The hallway Garcia was in was spared, but a roof and wall collapsed on students nearby.
``It was scary. It sounded like a bunch of people trying to beat the wall down. It was complete chaos out in the hallway,'' she said.
``People didn't know where to go. They were trying to lead us out of the building. I kept seeing people with blood on their faces,'' Garcia said.
At least one other person was killed elsewhere in Enterprise, a city of about 23,000 some 75 miles south of Montgomery. Another died across the state in rural Millers Ferry, where trailer homes were flipped and trees toppled, officials said.
The burst of tornadoes was part of a larger line of thunderstorms and snowstorms that stretched from Minnesota to the Gulf Coast. Authorities blamed a tornado for the death of a 7-year-old girl in Missouri, and twisters also were reported in Kansas.
As night fell, crews dug through piles of rubble beneath portable lights at the 1,300-student school, looking for other victims.
``The number could very well increase as the search effort continues through the night,'' state emergency management spokeswoman Yasamie Richardson said.
More than 50 people were hospitalized as the violent storm front crossed the state.
Several school systems across Alabama closed or dismissed students early Thursday as the storm front approached from the west, extending the length of the state.
Garcia said students had gathered in hallways around 11 a.m. as a precaution. Some were allowed to have parents pick them up, and school buses lined up to take the others around 1 p.m., she said, but the warning sirens came on.
The storm struck about 1:15 p.m., and Richardson said some students were still trapped three hours later.
Martha Rodriguez, a 15-year-old sophomore, said she had left the school about five minutes before the storm hit. When she returned, a hall at the school had collapsed, she said.
``The stadium was destroyed, and there were cars tipped over in the parking lot and trees were ripped out. There were trees and wood everywhere. It was just horrible,'' she said.
The school ``appears to have been right in the path,'' said Paul Duval, a meteorologist with National Weather Service in Tallahassee, Fla., which monitors southeast Alabama.
Shelters opened in Enterprise for those whose homes were damaged. The state sent in about 100 National Guard troops, plus emergency personnel, lights and generators.
President Bush, who visited New Orleans on Thursday, was briefed on the tornadoes by senior staff and called Alabama Gov. Bob Riley and Missouri Gov. Matt Blunt, White House spokeswoman Dana Perrino said aboard Air Force One.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency was working with officials in both states, she said.
In Caulfield, Mo., resident Rick Jarvis heard the storm ripping through his gas station around dawn. His home next door suffered just minor damage, but the twister, described by witnesses as a fat black column, shredded the business, ripping down its roof and back wall.
``It sounded like a herd of horses tearing up stuff. When I came out, it was done,'' said Jarvis, 48.
As the system pushed eastward Thursday night, tornado watches remained in effect in eastern Alabama and were posted in Florida, Georgia and South Carolina.
The tornadoes were the second to devastate a portion of the South this year. In early February, tornadoes ripped through a 30-mile path in central Florida, killing 21 and destroying hundreds of homes and businesses.