LAFAYETTE, Tenn. &
The Rev. Michael L. Welch was doing what he could to help people recover emotionally after a twister killed 14 people in rural Macon County, Tenn., setting up his church as a family crisis center.
Now, Welch and his family are among those being mourned. The family of four died Thursday when a tractor-trailer struck their van.
Three days after a series of tornadoes rumbled through the South, the grief only seems to get worse for Lafayette and many other hard-hit communities.
"We're all just numb in disbelief," said Ruth Stafford, a part-time secretary at the United Methodist Church that Welch had served since 2004. "We want to wake up from this nightmare."
The nightmare's far from over. Friday, the death toll from the tornadoes climbed to 59, and many others remained hospitalized or homeless.
The first wave of funerals began Friday. In Russellville, Ark., an overflow crowd crammed into a Baptist church to say goodbye to Jimmy and Dana Cherry and their 11-year-old daughter, Emmy.
Bouquets and wreaths of sunflowers, red roses, pink carnations, and lilies filled the front of the church and surrounded the pulpit, embracing the bronze, silver and white caskets. Framed photographs and flowers sat atop the coffins.
"They wouldn't have wanted one to go without the other," Pastor Ron Kauffman said.
In Greenville, Ky., friends and relatives gathered to bury Bobby Joe Crick, 69, his wife, Diane, 62, and their daughter, Gilda Ann "Sissy" Crick, 40. All three died when the tornado hit their trailer park.
Days after the storm, it continued to take its toll. Another Macon County man died from carbon monoxide poisoning from a generator he was using to power his storm-damaged home. So far, the man's death has not been counted among the storm victims.
Much of the focal point remained on Macon County. President Bush arrived here Friday morning and flew over the damaged area in a helicopter, accompanied by both of the state's senators and three congressmen.
Bush declared major disasters in Tennessee and Arkansas, opening the way for federal funds to help local government and some individuals.
Search and recovery efforts continued in Lafayette (pronounced luh-FAY-et) amid concerns of looting. Macon County was under a 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew. In areas of Lafayette with the worst damage, residents had to show identification at checkpoints to get to their homes. County officials said a large police and military presence was helping to keep order.
Tales continued to emerge of heroic efforts from everyday people as the tornadoes ripped through.
In Mountain View, Ark., nurses held onto 17 patients at Stone County Medical Center, even as the wind tore the roof from the building. No one suffered even a scratch, but the hospital was left a mess. For now, a newly built surgery center is serving as a makeshift emergency room.
"Right now, we're triage, treat and transfer," hospital administrator Karen Craft said.
In Fairfield, Ala., 24-year-old Jade Eddy wandered out after her home was knocked off its foundation and found her 86-year-old neighbor, Faye Nell McCullough, barely breathing. As winds whipped around them, Eddy sprawled on top of McCullough, shielding her from the elements and reciting the Lord's Prayer.
McCullough died Thursday at a hospital. But her son, Wade Long, said of Eddy, "There aren't enough words to tell you how I feel about what that young lady did for my mother."
In Tennessee, the National Weather Service said a single tornado that stayed on the ground for roughly 40 miles caused 24 of the storm deaths.
The tornado brought winds of 125 mph to 150 mph, making it a strength EF2 or EF3 on the Enhanced Fujita Scale of tornado severity, National Weather Service meteorologist Larry Vannozzi said.
The twister touched down near Gallatin in Sumner County, moved quickly across a small part of Trousdale County and continued through Macon County, then into Kentucky.
Seven people died in Sumner County, three in Trousdale County and 14 in Macon County.
The grief was so overwhelming in Macon County that Welch, 51, put together a counseling effort, then invited other local pastors to help out.
In an interview with The Associated Press at the center Thursday a few hours before his death, Welch said he and other ministers tried to listen to and comfort people who suffered losses, and pray with them.
"We cling to God, because He's all we've got," he said.
Welch, his wife, Julie, his 11-year-old daughter, Hannah, and his 14-year-old son, Jesse, were in their Honda van Thursday on Highway 52 when traffic stopped in front them. A semi struck the back of the van, pushing it into the car in front of them. Four other vehicles, including a second tractor-trailer, were also involved in the wreck. Four others were hurt. The Highway Patrol said criminal charges were pending.
The truck was owned by Wal-Mart, which is donating food, water and money to areas affected by the storm. But this truck was on a normal delivery route, said Dan Fogleman, a spokesman for the company.
Fogleman said the company, which employed the driver, was cooperating with investigators.
Dozens of people gathered late Thursday at Welch's church as word spread of the deaths. Among them were the Rev. Don Jones of the nearby First Baptist Church and his wife, Reba.
"We were all just kind of sitting there in a state of shock," Reba Jones said.
"This is one more thing. All of this has been horrible."
Bishop Richard Wills of the Tennessee Conference of the United Methodist Church said the grief counseling ministry will go on without Welch.
"In the meantime we will focus on the healing that needs to go on as the members grieve for their pastor," Wills said.
Associated Press writers Ryan Lenz in Lafayette, Kristin M. Hall in Nashville and Jon Gambrell in Russellville, Ark., contributed to this report.
More grief down South
LAFAYETTE, Tenn. &