TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Stunned residents of this southern university town surveyed a shocking landscape of twisted wreckage left by one of the biggest tornadoes ever to hit the state of Alabama.
In scenes reminiscent of the kind of destruction wrought by the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, the jumbled rubble of shattered homes and businesses lay entangled Thursday with crushed cars, uprooted trees and downed power lines.
At least 37 people were killed in Tuscaloosa, Mayor Walter Maddox said, out of 280 who lost their lives when a series of tornadoes and storms ripped from west to east across seven southern states in recent days.
Local residents, though hardened to storms that frequently roar through the humid south, described as unbelievable the destruction inflicted by the mile-wide twister that struck Wednesday.
"When I opened my eyes, I had no roof," said Angela Smith, 22, standing in what was her dining room. Her husband, Clay, had pulled a body from a neighbor's home, she said.
Maddox told CNN the tornado cut a seven-mile path of devastation through the city of 95,000. It is home to the University of Alabama.
"I don't know how anyone survived . . . it's an amazing scene, there's parts of the city that I don't recognize," Maddox said.
Hundreds of people stared awe-struck at wreckage on McFarland Boulevard, a commercial road running through the city. Many students carried what was left of their possessions in bags and suitcases as they walked down city streets.
The tornado, which flipped vehicles and flattened houses, shops and gas stations, could have been the biggest ever to hit Alabama, meteorologist Josh Nagelberg said on the AccuWeather.com website.
Robert Jackson, 50, a Tuscaloosa carpenter, said he knew it was time to get inside when he saw large sheds from a local Home Depot fly into the air.
"I felt a real cool breeze and saw debris circling. I ran to the hallway with my wife and children. We felt the tornado shaking the house. I haven't prayed that hard in my whole life," he said.