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Tornadoes strongest to hit eastern Ky. in 24 years

Mar. 04, 2012 @ 08:09 AM

EAST BERNSTADT, Ky. (AP) — In small Kentucky towns, residents told survival stories and talked about their friends and family members who were killed in the most powerful tornadoes to hit the eastern part of the state in nearly a quarter-century. In all, 19 people died.

Some towns were all but wiped out after at least four tornadoes — three with wind speeds up to 160 mph — hopscotched around the state Friday. As residents looked through the debris and rescue crews searched obliterated homes, stories of how some stayed safe emerged.

Tracy Pitman said she was at home with her husband and 4-year-old grandson when a tornado with winds of up to 130 mph sped through.

"I grabbed my baby and I said, 'Baby, lay down,' and I got on top of him and my husband got on top of me and it was already happening, just flipping us over and over and over," said Pitman, of East Bernstadt, a small town 70 miles south of Lexington.

When it was all over, her husband told his grandson: "God was sitting on my shoulder; that's all that saved us."

Her in-laws in the mobile home next door were killed. All that remained of their home was cinder blocks.

Tina Pitman, a daughter-in-law, said she had visited with Wilburn and Virginia Pitman earlier in the day. Their seven dogs survived.

"I just wish I had hugged them a little harder," Tina Pitman said.

Nearby, Carol Rhodes clutched four VHS tapes to her chest and sobbed as she talked about her neighbors, Debbie and Sherman Wayne Allen, who were also killed.

"They were the best neighbors," Rhodes said. "You couldn't ask for no better."

Rhodes said she and her husband, mother, daughter and grandchild hid from the storm in their basement.

"It was like, 'Whoo!' That was it," Rhodes said. "Honey, I felt the wind and I said, 'Oh, my God,' and then (the house) was gone. I looked up and I could see the sky."

In the small farming town of West Liberty in the foothills of the Appalachians, the Rev. Kenneth Jett of the West Liberty United Methodist Church recalled how he and four others huddled together in a little cubby hole in the basement as the church collapsed.

The pastor and his wife were in the parsonage next door when they saw on TV that the storm was coming. They ran into the church and headed for the basement with two congregants who had been cleaning the church and a neighbor who sought refuge there.

The last one down was Jett's wife, Jeanene.

"I just heard this terrific noise," she said. "The windows were blowing out as I came down the stairs."

Gov. Steve Beshear and Lt. Gov. Jerry Abramson toured the hardest-hit areas of the state Saturday.

During a visit to Kenton County in northern Kentucky, Beshear took a call from President Barack Obama. The Democratic governor told Obama the state had been the target of storms twice this week.

Beshear said he plans to ask for federal disaster assistance for both storms.

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