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Tornadoes rip through heart of Nashville

dark skies and snapped power lines in Nashville

Governor: Low casualty toll 'miracle'

Latest developments: April 17, 1998
Web posted at: 2:56 a.m. EDT (0656 GMT)

NASHVILLE, Tennessee (CNN) -- At least two tornadoes ripped through the heart of Nashville Thursday afternoon, damaging at least 300 buildings, including the State Capitol, and injuring more than 100 people.

"Considering the severity of the storm, it could have been a whole lot worse," said Tennessee Gov. Don Sundquist, who declared Nashville a disaster area. "The fact that we didn't have a whole lot of fatalities is a miracle really."

Vice President Al Gore arrived in Tennessee late Thursday and will tour Nashville and other areas affected by the tornadoes on Friday.

"On behaf of President Clinton, I want to express deep sorrow at the damage done by the horrible tornadoes that touched down in western Tennessee, middle Tennessee, and Waynesboro."

Most of the injuries were from flying glass and were not life-threatening. However, a man who was hit by a tree in Centennial Park was seriously injured and was being treated at Vanderbilt University Medical Center.

Storms came at 3:45 p.m.

 Image Gallery
Minivan crushed by tree
Damaged hotel
Scattered insulation
Collapsed garage
Damage to concrete building
Twisted sheet metal

The first storms roared through Nashville shortly after 3:45 p.m., moving from west to east across the downtown area in a storm cell with dark, fast-moving clouds.

The Nashville twisters were part of a storm front that had menaced Tennessee all day. Nine tornadoes touched down in eight counties, killing at least five people, said Cecil Whaley, director of the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency (TEMA).

At least three people died in a tornado that hit Wayne County, near the Alabama border, Thursday evening. The tornado cut a 23-mile-long, half-mile-wide path through two counties in central Tennessee, said TEMA spokeswoman Rachel Swan.

That storm cell spawned another twister that left five people critically injured and 50 homes destroyed in the Maury County community of Culleoka south of Nashville.

Two people died in Dyer County, along the Arkansas border, when an early morning twister hit their mobile home. Other tornadoes touched down in Pickett, Wilson, Maury, Macon and Dickson counties.

Two other people also died in early morning tornadoes that hit Manila, Arkansas, just across the Mississippi River from western Tennessee.

In north Alabama, an apparent tornado ripped through a rural area of Cullman County Thursday evening, causing "pretty heavy damage," but no injuries were reported, officials said.

"Quite a few trees" and "pretty heavy structural damage" was left behind by the storm in the southwest part of Cullman County, said Sheriff Tyler Roden.

Building, church collapse

crushed car
Several cars were crushed when an abandoned building collapsed

As the tornadoes strafed downtown Nashville, an abandoned building collapsed near the corner of 1st Avenue and Broadway. No injuries were reported at that location, but seven cars were crushed by debris.

The sanctuary of St. Anne's Episcopal Church collapsed, but its stained glass windows, among the oldest in the city, remained intact.

Windows were blown out in dozens of downtown skyscrapers, and the state Capitol was damaged. A crane being used to build the Tennessee Oilers' new football stadium overturned, causing some damage to the structure.

Most of the trees in Centennial Park were uprooted. The Gaylord Building, which houses the headquarters of two cable TV networks, The Nashville Network and Country Music Television, was badly damaged.

The headquarters buildings of both the police and fire departments were damaged as well. Jean Ridley, a spokeswoman for the fire department, said some equipment was trapped under debris.

windows gone
People look out of a building that lost its windows in the storm

"We had to have a bulldozer come in to move the debris and get it out," she said.

Also damaged was the state headquarters of the American Red Cross, which was in the direct path of the storm.

"The building was just shaking unbelievably hard," said Red Cross spokesman Matthew Bourlkas.

Several nursing homes reported serious damage, and patients were trapped in at least one for a short time, according to TEMA spokesman Jim Cannon.

Rush-hour traffic snarled

Numerous power outages were reported in the city. With traffic lights out and debris blocking some roadways, rush-hour traffic was snarled.

In downtown Nashville, Russ Simons, manager of the Nashville Arena, witnessed the twister.

"I saw this black object with stuff swirling around in it. I looked out my windows, and I can't tell you what I said."

Pierre and Ursula Regazzoni, Swiss tourists who were visiting the city, said their car was crushed by falling bricks from a downtown building.

More than 100 guests and workers at the Crowne Plaza Hotel were huddled in the basement with flashlights when the storm struck, said Ty Ette, a temporary worker there. Windows were broken throughout the hotel, but no one was hurt, she said.

In the wake of the storm, classes at Nashville schools were canceled Friday. Sundquist also ordered state offices closed.


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