Enterprise, AL (CBS/AP) - Apparent tornadoes killed at least 7 people in Alabama on Thursday, including 5 at a high school where students were trapped under a collapsed roof, state officials said. A 7-year-old girl in Missouri, and a couple in North Dakota were killed by the same storm system.
More than 50 people were hospitalized as a violent storm front crossed the state.
Alabama State Emergency Management Agency spokeswoman Yasamie Richardson said eight fatalities "are in relation to the high school but whether they are all students or some students and teachers. We're not sure."
House Speaker Seth Hammett, at the statehouse in Montgomery, announced that five people had died at Miller's Ferry in west Alabama, where another apparent tornado tore into mobile homes.
Martha Rodriquez, a 15-year-old sophomore, said she had left the school about five minutes before the storm hit. When she returned, a hall at the school had collapsed, she said.
"The stadium was destroyed and there were cars tipped over in the parking lot and trees were ripped out. There were trees and wood everywhere. It was just horrible," she said.
More than 40 people were brought in to an Enterprise hospital as a violent storm front crossed the state.
Several school systems across Alabama closed or dismissed students early Thursday as the storm front approached from the west, extending the length of the state.
"The clouds were so dark that all the lights out here came on," said Walter Thornton, who works at Enterprise Municipal Airport.
Forecasters blamed the tornadoes on a severe thunderstorm condition known as a sustained supercell — violent weather that can track for hundreds of miles, reports CBS News correspondent Mark Strassmann. It was part of a giant storm that stretched from Lake Michigan to the Florida Panhandle.
"It's affecting a large amount of real estate,” says National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration meteorologist Dennis Feltgen. “And all the ingredients necessary to produce a widespread severe weather outbreak are in place."
The same system was blamed for a tornado that killed a 7-year-old girl in Missouri.
Howell County Sheriff Robbie Crites identified the young victim as Elizabeth Croney. Her mother, father and two brothers were injured when a tornado hit their mobile home in a rural wooded area near West Plains, Crites said.
"We were looking outside and stuff, and pretty soon we seen a real dark cloud. I looked out and ... we had some debris just kind of floating in the air," Marleen Tackett, who owns the Hitching Post Cafe not far from the Croney home, told CBS Radio News. "We were just on the tail end of it here. It just came and went that fast."
President Bush, who visited New Orleans on Thursday, was briefed on the tornadoes by senior staff and called Alabama Gov. Bob Riley and Missouri Gov. Matt Blunt, White House spokeswoman Dana Perrino said aboard Air Force One.
“He called to say he extended his condolences, wanted them to know he was thinking of them, the families and the citizens, and the federal government stands by to help,” Perrino said.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency was working with officials in both states, she said.
Meanwhile, a winter storm smacked the Plains and Midwest with heavy, wet snow and blizzard conditions Thursday, with some areas anticipating as much as two feet of snow by Friday.
Hundreds of schools closed in several states, miles of highway were shut down and some airline delayed or canceled flights. At least two people were killed when their car overturned on a slick road in North Dakota.
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