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Reports: Twister kills two mothers protecting kin

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  • NEW: EPA officials en route to Picher to test air, soil, spokeswoman says
  • One mother dies protecting son, one dies checking on mother, reports say
  • 15 dead in Missouri, 1 killed in Georgia, six in Oklahoma, officials say
  • States of emergency declared in Oklahoma, Georgia counties
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PICHER, Oklahoma (CNN) -- Two mothers protecting family members were among the six people killed by a tornado that ripped through this Oklahoma border town on the eve of Mother's Day, according to reports.

A mother, her husband and their 4-year-old son were at home when the twister hit, blowing them from their house, according to the Picher Fire Department.

Rescuers discovered them about a block away from their house. The mother died huddled over her son, the fire department said. The husband suffered back and head injuries and was taken to a Tulsa hospital where his son is being treated for facial injuries.

Their names have not been released, but a source said the father was a coach and teacher at a nearby high school.

Angela Bertie also lost her mother when the twister cut its path through this town tucked into the northeast corner of Oklahoma, just miles from the Kansas and Missouri borders. See how 2008 tornado activity compares to years past »

According to newsok.com, the Web site for KWTV in Oklahoma City, Bertie was canvassing Picher for storm victims when she found her 48-year-old mother, Linda Mathis.

Bertie, 28, said Mathis had gone to Bertie's grandmother's house to keep her company during the storm, according to the Web site.

Had Mathis stayed home, Bertie said, she might not have been thrown from the house, which was leveled. Bertie's grandmother is in intensive care, the Web site reported.

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Bertie said she wishes her mother would have stayed home, but she applauded Mathis' brave decision to make certain her mother was OK.

"She was somebody who wanted to live life to its fullest," Bertie said, according to newsok.com.

The fatalities in Oklahoma are among at least 22 people killed by the storm system, which ravaged the southwest corner of Missouri, killing at least 15, before moving into the Southeast. See when and where tornadoes are most common »

In addition to the six people killed in Ottawa County, Oklahoma, 13 people died in Newton County, Missouri, one was killed in Jasper County, Missouri, and another person died in Barry County, Missouri, according to emergency management officials in both states.

The severe weather also killed at least one person in Laurens County, Georgia. Video Watch how the storm hit one Georgia town hard »

The deadly Midwest tornado -- at times, a mile wide -- blew winds estimated at up to 175 miles per hour, tracking a total of 63 miles from Oklahoma to southwest Missouri, according to the National Weather Service. The storms spawned five twisters in Oklahoma and two in neighboring Arkansas.

Possible tornadoes also were reported Sunday evening in the coastal Carolinas, according to the weather service. No injuries or fatalities were immediately reported.

An official surveying the damage in the Midwest said it looked like a "war zone."

"It's just horrific. It's devastating to all of us," said Oklahoma Gov. Brad Henry, who declared a state of emergency in Ottawa County. "It appears the search and rescue part of the mission is over and now we're in the cleanup phase."

Sherri Mills was in Picher trying to find family pictures inside the wreckage that had been a friend's home. Mills said her friend was not home when the tornado struck. Photo See scenes from the devastation »

"Thank God she wasn't here," said Mills, standing in front of the piles of brick and wood. "[She] lost everything. This was a two-story big brick home."

Another man in Picher said he was home with his family when the storm hit. He said he was blown around inside the home and was lucky to be alive.

"We got down on the floor and huddled up together, and we weren't in there thirty seconds when it hit the house," the man said. "We ended up right there under that door. At least I was under the door. My wife, two granddaughters, and my daughter was all there, just bunched up against each other."Video Watch a longtime pilot say he's never seen such destruction »

Picher, a town of about 1,600, was on the the brink of extinction long before the weekend tornado. The town is part of the Tar Creek Superfund site, a designation the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency handed down in the 1980s after decades of zinc and iron mining contaminated the soil and surrounding water.

Long before the twister touched down Saturday, the state and federal governments were in the process of buying residents' homes and property, said EPA spokeswoman Tressa Tillman. In addition to pollution dangers, there also is a risk of the ground collapsing because of the mining tunnels running beneath the earth, she said.

EPA crews were en route to Picher early Monday afternoon to conduct air and soil tests, she said. The EPA is concerned that the storms and debris could have upset the area's "chat piles," which basically consist of refuse rock and gravel.

"There are chat piles that remain from the mining activity and contain lead, zinc and cadmium," Tillman said. "Because of the storm, those chat piles have been disturbed."

Tillman said the EPA would have results from its testing by late Monday or early Tuesday.

President Bush has pledged federal support for the storm-stricken areas.

"Mother's Day is a sad day for those who lost their lives in Oklahoma, Missouri and Georgia because of the tornadoes," Bush told reporters in Waco, Texas. "We send our prayers for those who lost their lives. The federal government will be moving hard to help."

Aboard Air Force One, Bush contacted Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue and Missouri Gov. Matt Blunt and spoke with Henry after arriving at the White House. Bush did not specify what support the federal government would provide.

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and Federal Emergency Management Agency chief David Paulison also were in touch with the governors and planned to tour the disaster areas Tuesday.

"We will partner with our state counterparts to ensure that we bring the full complement of federal resources to their aid as needed," Paulison said.

Lisa Janak, spokeswoman for the Georgia Emergency Management Agency, said one person was killed in Dublin, just south of Macon.

And the nearby town of Kite, with about 200 residents, was "significantly damaged," she said.

Earlier, Janak said there were reports that the town was "gone," but added later that those claims were exaggerated.

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Perdue declared a state of emergency Sunday in six counties in Georgia. Video Watch how a severe storm took Georgia by surprise »

Authorities fear there may be additional casualties in Missouri, said Susie Stonner, spokeswoman with the state Emergency Management Agency in Jefferson City, Missouri.

CNN's Lee Garen, Susan Candiotti, Janet DiGiacomo and Eliott C. McLaughlin contributed to this report.

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