ADAIRSVILLE, Ga. (AP) — Authorities believe a tornado swelled to 900 yards wide and as it tore across northwest Georgia for nearly 22 miles.
National Weather Service officials say the Wednesday twister had an estimated wind speed of 160 mph when it demolished a large manufacturing plant in Adairsville, about 60 miles northwest of Atlanta.
Crews that toured the destruction Thursday say they believe the tornado, which destroyed more than 60 buildings in Bartow and Gordon counties, was a strong EF3 tornado.
The heaviest damage was found at the Daiki Corp. steel manufacturing plant in Adairsville, where the 160 mph winds struck. That is just shy of an EF4 tornado, which has winds of 166 mph and above.
Workers look for personal belongings following a tornado at the Daiki plant, a metal fabrication company, Wednesday, Jan. 30, 2013, in Adairsville, Ga. A fierce storm system that roared across Georgia has left at least one person dead after it demolished buildings and flipped vehicles on Interstate 75 northwest of Atlanta. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
Authorities say the tornado killed an Adairsville man and injured 17 people in the two counties.
For Darleen Evans, it was sheer terror as the manufacturing plant where she worked collapsed around her and her colleagues. She and two other women rushed into a bathroom stall, she holding one under each arm as she prayed, a tornado roaring overhead.
She tearfully recalled their survival as nothing short of a miracle: "If it wasn't for God, this company and these people wouldn't be here."
On two occasions, tornadoes have ripped through the Daiki Corp. steel manufacturing plant that employs more than 90 people in this small community. Both times, everyone inside escaped serious injury.
The sprawling facility won't be reopening anytime soon after the storm that hit Wednesday, however: Most of it has been reduced to a pile of rubble, little more than mangled beams and twisted steel. The first time, in 2002, a tornado tossed the roof into the parking lot. Ventilation fans, ductwork and wiring were torn away.
Pam Parker sifts through debris while looking for any personal belongings in the area where she was sitting at her desk when a tornado struck the Daiki plant, a metal fabrication company where she works in accounts payable, Wednesday, Jan. 30, 2013, in Adairsville, Ga. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
Several media outlets aired dramatic video Wednesday showing a massive funnel cloud roaring through Adairsville, a town of about 4,600 some 60 miles northwest of Atlanta.
Three people died because of the massive storm system that marched across the U.S. — tornadoes killed one each in Tennessee and Georgia, while floodwaters killed a third in Maryland. While most came away with their lives, many lost their homes and were left with little else a day later.
Tens of thousands were without power at the storm's peak as a cold front sent what had been unseasonably high temperatures plummeting to near-freezing depths. Dangerous wind blanketed the nation's midsection, with subzero temperatures and wind chills recorded in the Dakotas. In Detroit, icy roads were blamed for a massive chain reaction wreck involving about 30 vehicles on Interstate 75. At least three people died there, and another pileup involving more than 40 vehicles near Indianapolis closed a stretch of Interstate 70 in both directions.
Others closely watched rivers swollen by torrential rains, and officials opened flood gates to ease pressure on dams in Maryland. Hundreds were evacuated to higher ground. In Anne Arundel County, one person apparently drowned in a flooded camp where homeless people live in tents, said police Lt. T.J. Smith.
Ernest Moran said he lives at the site with about 15 other people. He awakened Thursday morning to find "a swamp," he said, and escaped with only his dog and a knapsack.
Near the nation's capital, at least one motorist had to be rescued because of flash floods. In New England, powerful winds were the main problem as gusts topping 60 mph in some areas caused widespread power outages.
The tornadoes Tuesday and Wednesday broke the nation's longest break between tornado fatalities since detailed records began being kept in 1950, according to the Storm Prediction Center and National Climatic Data Center. The last one was June 24 in Florida. That was 220 days ago as of Tuesday.
Winter tornadoes are not unheard of: In January 2012, at least two tornadoes ripped across Alabama, killing two people and wiping out scores of homes and businesses. Warm air from the Gulf of Mexico can collide with cold air inland, creating the sort of instability that spawned this week's tornadoes.
National Weather Service meteorologist George Wetzel said the storm that tore through Adairsville was a high EF3 in strength, creating winds of more than 100 miles per hour. An EF5 is the strongest tornado category.
The storm traveled 25 miles across Bartow and Gordon counties, and it is not yet clear how long it took for the storm to travel through the area, Wetzel said.
By Thursday, the focus in Adairsville had turned to cleanup and rebuilding. Metal siding and fiberglass insulation dangled from trees; Christmas ornaments and knickknacks were strewn across lawns, the homes that had housed them no longer standing.
Dozens of law enforcement officials from several agencies swarmed the area, as well as other relief workers. A Krystal fast food restaurant in town served meals to rescuers as well as residents struggling to recover.
Daiki plant manager Wes Stephenson said Thursday that the facility would likely have to at least temporarily lay off most of its 90 employees. The storm knocked out most of its manufacturing capability, but there are some sections of the plant still standing where employees could do some finishing work. Stephenson said he hoped to keep a skeleton crew to do that finishing work until the rest of the plant could be repaired, which would likely take at least several months.
Rodey Kirby, a production worker, was among those who didn't know if he'd still have a job in the coming days. He was working Wednesday when the lights started flickering, and Stephenson told him and others to run. They took cover in a restroom, and Kirby and two colleagues kneeled and started praying. He heard the unmistakable roar of a tornado; he looked up and saw the ceiling tiles vanish.
"I'd see daylight and no daylight; daylight and no daylight. And then it seemed like it took forever, but then it was over," Kirby said.
"I looked around and everybody was there. And I'm glad (God) heard our prayers because that's the only thing I could do with it, just hold on and pray."
Associated Press writers Phillip Lucas in Atlanta and Matthew Barakat in Laurel, Md., contributed to this report.