ROLLING FORK, Miss. (AP) — With her sister behind the wheel, Queen’terica Jones rushed across the flat Mississippi Delta as a powerful tornado bore down on their mother’s home. The howling winds lifted the rear of their car off the ground and slammed them into a churchyard.
They arrived too late. The tornado had already killed their mother, ruined her home and devasted the town of Rolling Fork. With no electricity, survivors used cellphone flashlights to pick through the wreckage. Jones said she found her mother’s lifeless body face-down in the yard, bloodied by nails that struck her head.
“I wouldn’t wish this pain upon nobody, not even an enemy,” Jones said Tuesday.
Her mother, Erica Moore, worked as a personal care assistant and is survived by six children. She was “a beautiful soul” who loved to pray and help people, Jones said.
“She was amazing. A sweetheart,” Jones said. “I mean, ain’t nobody perfect. Everybody goes through something, but our mom — everybody that’s known our mom knows she had a heart of gold.”
At least 21 people in Mississippi and a man in Alabama perished as menacing storms tore across the Deep South over the weekend. The toll was especially steep in Sharkey County, in western Mississippi, where Moore was among 13 people who died in a county of 3,700 residents.
County Coroner Angelia Eason said the losses hit the close-knit community hard.
“I had to identify family, that’s what it felt like,” Eason said. “When something like this happens, we tend to come together even closer. We didn’t just lose 13 people, we lost 13 family members.”
The storm wiped out multiple generations: A woman and her elderly mother were killed, Eason said. Others were in the wrong place at the wrong time: A man from Yazoo City had traveled more than 30 miles (48 kilometers) for an auction in Rolling Fork.
Lonnie and Melissa Pierce lived a quiet, peaceful life in the town before the tornado swept up a neighbor’s semi-truck and dropped it onto their brick home like a bomb, killing the married couple.
Lonnie’s friends and neighbors say the retired welder was fond of hunting and bass fishing. Melissa volunteered for a local Christian charity that operates a small thrift store.
“They were good. About the best, I can tell you that,” said neighbor Harvey Cockrell, 76, a fellow welder who worked with Lonnie for decades.
A mound of broken rubble was all that remained of the couple’s home after the twister packing winds of up to 200 mph (320 kph) hit Rolling Fork late Friday. The 18-wheeler remained perched atop the debris Monday, and deer antlers that had been among Lonnie’s hunting trophies covered the couple’s yard.
Once the storm passed, Jermain Wells, a neighbor of the Pierces, went door-to-door searching for survivors in need. When he got to the wreckage of the couple’s home, there was nothing he could do.
“We couldn’t get them out,” Wells said.
April Johnson, a mother of five, was killed while working the cash register at a discount store in town. The storm destroyed the business.
“She was a hardworking, loving kind who would go out of her way to help people,” said Dianne Berry, a cousin to April’s mother. “She always had a smile.”
Berry said April’s son played football and she was always willing to drive other kids to games and practices. “She would fix them little snack bags,” Berry said.
Shaquana Stubbs’ brother, Daryl Purvis, also died in Rolling Fork.
“He was a very kindhearted person,” Stubbs said of Daryl, who worked in landscaping. “He was the life of the party. He’ll do anything to make you laugh and everybody that knew him loved him. You couldn’t do nothing but love him.”
In addition to the heavy death toll, the same storm system injured dozens of people and damaged or destroyed hundreds of homes and buildings during four days in which it pummeled the South from Texas to the Carolinas.
In the Mississippi neighborhood where the Pierces were killed, it was difficult to believe anyone had survived. Cockrell and his wife, Mary Cockrell, took cover in the central hallway of their home when the tornado struck. Their home was destroyed and they lost nearly everything but their lives.
“It’s like a war zone,” Mary said. “Everything’s torn to pieces.”
AP reporter Emily Wagster Pettus contributed to this story from Jackson, Mississippi.