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Tornadoes kill 7 in Ala., 1 in Missouri

Five people die while hiding in a high school

ENTERPRISE, Ala. -- Tornadoes ripped through Alabama and killed at least 7 people yesterday, including 5 at a high school where students became pinned under debris when a roof collapsed, state officials said.

As night fell, crews dug through piles of rubble beneath portable lights at Enterprise High School, looking for other victims.

"The number could very well increase as the search effort continues through the night," state emergency management spokeswoman Yasamie Richardson said.

In the chaotic hours after the storm, reports about the death toll varied widely. At one point, state officials said as many as 18 people were dead. Richardson blamed miscommunication at the scene.

The burst of tornadoes was part of a larger line of thunderstorms and snowstorms that stretched from Minnesota to the Gulf Coast. Authorities blamed a tornado for the death of a 7-year-old girl in Missouri, and twisters also were reported in Kansas.

The storm struck at the high school around 1:15 p.m., and Richardson said some students were still trapped three hours later. Erin Garcia, a 17-year-old senior, said students had gathered in hallways around 11 a.m. as a precaution. School officials wanted to send them home around 1 p.m., she said, but the weather turned bad and sirens wailed.

Then, she said, the lights went out.

"I was just sitting there praying the whole time," she said.

After the storm passed, she found the hallway she was in was spared, but a roof and wall had collapsed on students in another hallway.

"People didn't know where to go. They were trying to lead us out of the building. I kept seeing people with blood on their faces," Garcia said.

More than 50 people were hospitalized as the violent storm front crossed the state. One person died elsewhere in Enterprise and one death was reported in rural Millers Ferry, where a separate storm wrecked mobile homes, Richardson said.

Officials opened shelters for those whose homes were damaged. The state sent in about 100 National Guardsmen along with emergency personnel, lights and generators.

The high school, about 75 miles south of Montgomery, "appears to have been right in the path," said Paul Duval, a meteorologist with National Weather Service in Tallahassee, which monitors southeast Alabama. The force of the storm blew the windows out of cars and buses in the parking lot.

President Bush was briefed on the tornadoes and called Governor Bob Riley of Alabama and Governor Matt Blunt of Missouri, White House spokeswoman Dana Perrino said. The Federal Emergency Management Agency was working with both states, she said.