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Tornado survivors share harrowing stories

Across the twister-ravaged South Saturday, residents continued to clear away the wreckage from the tornadoes that killed 341 people across seven states Wednesday -- the second-deadliest day of twisters in U.S. history. Thousands were hurt, and hundreds of homes and businesses have vanished into rubble.

At least one of the massive tornadoes that struck in Mississippi was classified by the National Weather Service as an EF-5 storm, the highest rating given to assess a tornado's wind speed, and is based in part on damage it caused. That half-mile-wide tornado had peak winds of 205 mph.

Across the South last week, the hours of repeated tornado warnings seeded a strange kind of tension among residents; that turned into terror as the twisters turned their lives upside down. Here are two of their stories:

On the second floor of the Charleston Square Apartments, eight blocks from the University of Alabama campus in Tuscaloosa, Daniel Mulder, a 24-year-old senior at the university, studied for finals while his wife, Rachael, a hospital nurse, slept off her night shift.

Mulder had heard Tuscaloosa's tornado warning sirens go off before. Nothing ever seemed to come of it, so he wasn't particularly concerned. He looked out the window: sunny and calm.

Not far away, in the Alberta City neighborhood, Roosevelt and Maggie Lee also heard the warnings. But they could hear the wind begin to swirl across the roofline and around the windows.

Back near campus, the weather was growing more dire as the sky darkened and the wind picked up.

"It kept building and building," Mulder said. "I thought, 'Wow, something's happening out there.' It didn't kick in all at once. I had to sit and listen for a moment. 'Is this real? Do we need to take cover?' "

He made a split-second decision, dashing into the bedroom where his wife was sleeping. "Hey, Rachael!" he yelled. "We have to get in the bathtub! Get in the tub now!"

Just then the power went dead, and the couple fumbled their way toward the bathroom in the dark.

In the tub, Rachael sobbed with fear, folding herself into a ball as her husband wrapped his arms around her.

At the Lees' house, the wind outside mutated into a roar.

That was enough for Roosevelt Lee. The minister hustled his family toward the back of the house to an old iron bathtub, and ordered his wife, daughter Faris, 15, and granddaughters Madison, 7, and Brendanee, 1, inside. Then he flung himself on top of them like a blanket.

No sooner had they done so than the Lees heard the splintering and popping of wood and metal as the house peeled away from around them.

Then a back wall exploded off the foundation and the wind lifted the tub with five passengers aboard off the floor -- and sucked it out through the gaping opening like a torpedo.

The family tumbled and spun through air until they were flung free. Faris landed in the driveway. Maggie and Madison were dragged across the ground, rasping their skin like sandpaper.

When he could get up, Lee surveyed the landscape. Most of his house had landed across the street. He climbed atop the rubble and saw the baby, Brendanee, partly buried in a hole of mangled wooden studs. He pulled her out and began running toward help through the rain and wind.

Back in Tuscaloosa, Daniel Mulder cautiously opened the bathroom door to find the walls of their apartment gone, the roof ripped away. He climbed out the kitchen window and saw a woman unconscious in the parking lot, her body bruised and bloodied.

He ran back upstairs for his wife, who grabbed a first-aid kit. The woman was breathing and had a pulse. But her torso was ripped open, like something "out of a horror movie."

She needed a trachea tube and suction, a bag to help her breathe. But Rachael could only hold her, helplessly. Moments later, the woman let out a gurgle and then fell silent. The Mulders covered the body with a tarp.

"Why her?" Rachael said. "Why wasn't it me?"

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