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story.lead_photo.caption Ashley Griggs (right) helps Joey Roush sift through what’s left of his mother’s home Monday after it was destroyed by a tornado in Beauregard, Ala.

BEAUREGARD, Ala. -- Rescue crews using dogs and drones searched for victims amid splintered lumber and twisted metal Monday after the deadliest U.S. tornado in nearly six years ripped through a rural Alabama community. At least 23 people were killed, some of them children.

Dozens were missing in Lee County nearly a day after the twister struck, according to the sheriff, who said crews had combed the hardest-hit areas but that other places had yet to be searched.

The winds Sunday afternoon obliterated numerous homes, leaving huge, jumbled piles of wood and household belongings. Some homes were reduced to concrete slabs. Debris was scattered across the countryside, with shredded metal hanging from the pine trees.

"I'm not going to be surprised if we don't come up with some more deceased. Hopefully, we won't," Coroner Bill Harris said. He said the dead included almost entire families and at least three children, ages 6, 9 and 10.

Gallery: Storm damage in Alabama

On the day after the disaster, volunteers used chain saws to clear paths for emergency workers. Neighbors and friends helped one another find some of their belongings in the ruins.

Carol Dean found her wedding dress among the wreckage of her mobile home. But the storm took her 53-year-old husband. She said David Wayne Dean was at home Sunday afternoon and had texted a friend to beware when the tornado hit.

"He didn't make it out," she said.

Dean said she rushed home from her job at Walmart when she couldn't reach her husband on the phone. She pushed her way past sheriff's deputies who tried to keep her out of the damaged area. Her children had found David Dean's body in a neighbor's yard.

"They took me down to him," Dean said, "and I got to spend a little time with him before they took him away."

Taylor Thornton, 10, had been camping with her best friend for several days and was at the friend's father's mobile home in Beauregard when the storm hit.

Taylor's mother, Ashley Thornton, said in a telephone interview that she got a call around 2 p.m. Sunday from the friend's mother, who is divorced from the father. The mother had had no luck reaching the father by phone; could Thornton try?

When she could not get through either, her husband, David Thornton, drove toward the home, and then got out and walked when snapped trees blocked the way. When he arrived, "there was no house left," he told his wife by phone; he recognized the place only by a motorcycle parked outside.

Thornton said her husband persuaded a sheriff's deputy to let him onto the property, where he saw Taylor's body. The deputy let him carry her to a waiting vehicle.

"The few times I've talked to him, all he's told me was that she looked like she was sleeping," Thornton said. When the identity of the body was confirmed, she said, family and friends "just kind of crumbled."

At the R&D Grocery, rattled residents asked one another if they were OK. And a big banner that read "#BEAUREGARDSTRONG" was hung on a fence at Beauregard High School.

The National Weather Service said one and possibly two tornadoes struck the area, with a powerful EF-4 twister with winds estimated at 170 mph blamed for most of the destruction. It carved a path nearly a mile wide and 24 miles long, said meteorologist Chris Darden.

Darden said the "monster tornado" was the deadliest twister to hit the U.S. since May 2013, when an EF-5 killed 24 people in Moore, Okla.

"It looks like someone almost just took a giant knife and scraped the ground," said Sheriff Jay Jones, who also said he was personally affected by the disaster, with most victims concentrated in a 1-square-mile area.

"This hurts my heart," Jones told reporters. "It's extremely upsetting to me to see these people hurting like this and families who have lost loved ones."

Crews searching door-to-door used dogs as well as drones that can detect heat from a body. "We're basically using everything we can get our hands on," the sheriff said.

President Donald Trump tweeted that he told the Federal Emergency Management Agency to give Alabama "the A Plus treatment."

The twister was part of a powerful storm system that slashed its way across the Deep South, spawning numerous tornado warnings in Georgia, South Carolina and Florida.

"All we could do is just hold on for life and pray," said Jonathan Clardy, who huddled with his family inside their Beauregard trailer as the tornado ripped the roof off. "It's a blessing from God that me and my young'uns are alive."

Beauregard, named for a Confederate general, is an unincorporated community of roughly 10,000 people near the Georgia state line. The community is in the same county as Auburn University and has a few small stores, two schools and a volunteer fire department dotting the main highway.

Julie Morrison and her daughter-in-law picked through the ruins of Morrison's home in Beauregard, looking for keys and a wallet. They managed to salvage her husband's motorcycle boots and a Bible.

Morrison said she and her husband took shelter in the bathtub as the twister lifted their house off the ground and swept it into the woods.

"We knew we were flying because it picked the house up," Morrison said, figuring that the shower's fiberglass enclosure helped them survive. She said her son-in-law later dug them out.

Along one hard-hit country road, giant pieces of metal from a farm building dangled from pine branches 20 feet in the air, making loud creaking sounds as the wind blew. For an entire mile down the road, pines were snapped in half. A mobile home crushed by two trees marked the end of the path of destruction.

An early March tornado outbreak in the Alabama-Mississippi area is not unusual, tornado experts said.

The weather service's Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla., posted forecasts for higher tornado activity in the region on Thursday, three days before the disaster. University of Georgia meteorology professor Marshall Shepherd said government forecasters "were all over it."

An EF-5 tornado that struck Joplin, Mo., in May 2011 killed 158 people. And an outbreak of tornadoes in the Southeast a month before that left an estimated 316 people dead, including at least 250 in Alabama.

Information for this article was contributed by Kim Chandler, Jeff Martin, Russ Bynum, Seth Borenstein, Bill Cormier, and Ryan Kryska of The Associated Press; by Amy B. Wang, Matthew Cappucci, Meagan Flynn, Allyson Chiu and Alex Horton of The Washington Post; and by Alan Blinder and Matt Stevens of The New York Times.

A Section on 03/05/2019

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