LAFAYETTE, Tennessee (CNN) -- James Kruger was watching election results Tuesday night in Lafayette, Tennessee, when a warning appeared on his TV screen: A tornado was headed straight toward his town. Then the lights went out.
James Kruger survived after Tuesday night's storm blew his house away above him in Lafayette, Tennessee.
He put on sweat pants, grabbed a flashlight, drank a shot of whiskey, "and then I heard this noise," Kruger said Thursday.
He headed for a door, "and all of a sudden I heard the glass breaking and it was sucking," he said. "When I tried to shut the door, [it] seemed like the door was lifting up. So I just dove and I lay flat on the floor."
Lying there, everything in the house flew over him, scraping and banging his back, Kruger said. Then the chaos stopped. "I was laying in the dirt. There was no floor. No nothing." Watch Kruger tell his story »
The house was gone, but Kruger says he believes there's reason why he survived.
"I think God was holding my leg, beating my ass, teaching me that I hadn't been doing everything he wanted me to do," he said.
Pam Whitaker was volunteering at a hospital in Lafayette that night as dozens came in with injuries from the tornadoes and storms that raked across the South.
Whitaker was cleaning one man's feet to check for cuts when the patient told her the address of a house that had been destroyed.
"I just went white. I said, 'That's my house!'" Whitaker recalled Thursday. "And he said, 'Hon, you don't even have a toothpick or splinter left.' " Watch Whitaker describe her frightening night »
Kruger, Whitaker and others across the region tried Thursday to put their lives back together in a swath of the South where tornadoes killed at least 56 people.
It was the deadliest tornado outbreak in the United States in more than 20 years.
The storms ripped apart houses and trapped residents of university dorms and a retirement home in debris.
The trail of death stretched across four states, with four fatalities in Alabama, 13 in Arkansas, seven in Kentucky and 32 in Tennessee.
Macon County, Tennessee, which includes Lafayette, was one of the worst-hit areas, with 14 deaths and overwhelming damage.
Whitaker lost her home and everything in it, including the money from cashing her disability check. She had 15 cents left, she said Thursday, and was staying at a National Guard shelter.
"We don't have a home to go to," Whitaker said. "I don't know where we're going to end up."
In some cases, there was almost no warning before the severe weather hit.
James Baskin of Jackson, Tennessee, said he was driving when a twister "just picked us up and threw us."
Everyone in the car was injured, including his daughter's friend, who suffered a broken collarbone.
"We'll get through it. Nobody's dead. That's the biggest thing," Baskin said. Watch tornado survivors' stories »
President Bush said Wednesday he had called the governors of the affected states to offer help and to tell them that "the American people hold those who suffered up in prayer."
The Federal Emergency Management Agency was deploying teams to the area, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said Wednesday. "We're going to keep watching this," he said. See a map of where the storms hit »
In Sumner County, Tennessee, two victims were found outside a house the storm had blown away, said Jay Austin, the county's primary death investigator.
Elsewhere in the area, a mother was found dead in a creek bed about 50 yards from where her house stood. Her baby was discovered alive 250 yards away. The child was taken to a local hospital, Austin said.
Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen said the storm's power had left him stunned.
"I don't think that I have seen, since I've been governor, a tornado where the combination of the intensity of it and the length of the track was as large as this one," said Bredesen, who flew over the disaster area Wednesday.
"That track had to be 25 miles long. [The twister] didn't skip like a lot of them do. ... It's just 25 miles of a tornado sitting on the ground."
Also in Jackson, a tornado trapped Union University students and retirees in collapsed buildings, said Julie Oaks, a spokeswoman for the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency.
"It looks like a war zone," said university President David Dockery. "Cars and trucks [were] thrown from one side of the campus to the other." E-mail to a friend
CNN's Saeed Ahmed, Mark Bixler, David Mattingly and Ed Payne contributed to this report.