VILONIA, Ark. — The sky turned black as the funnel cloud closed in, and Maggie Caro rushed with her husband and two children to a community shelter at a Vilonia school, where they were among the last to get inside the fortified gym before the doors were shut.
"They were screaming, 'Run! Run! It's coming!'" Caro recalled.
And then all hell broke loose.
The half-mile-wide tornado carved an 80-mile path of destruction through the Little Rock suburbs Sunday evening, killing at least 15 people, flattening rows of homes, shredding cars along a highway and demolishing a brand-new school before it even had a chance to open.
Officials said the death toll could have been worse if residents hadn't piled into underground storm shelters and fortified safe rooms after listening to forecasts on TV and radio, getting cellphone alerts or calls or texts from loved ones, and hearing sirens blare through their neighborhoods.
Also on people's minds: memories of a weaker tornado that smashed through on April 25, 2011. It took nearly the same path and killed at least four people.
"You had people breaking down because they were reliving three years ago," Kimber Standridge said of the scene inside the community shelter, which she said was packed with perhaps more than 100 people.
Standridge and a friend had gathered up seven children they were watching and sped through the streets just minutes before the twister hit.
"When they shut the doors, we knew it was on us," Standridge said. "Everybody hunkered down. There were a lot of people doing prayer circles, holding hands and praying."
Caro and Standridge said the shelter was so solid they barely felt or heard the tornado.
It was among a rash of twisters and violent storms across the Midwest and South that killed 17 people in all on Sunday.
With forecasters warning of more of the same Monday across the South, at least three tornados flattened homes and businesses, flipped trucks over on highways and injured an unknown number of people in Mississippi and Alabama.
Most of the dead in Arkansas were killed in their homes in and around Vilonia, population 3,800. Firefighters on Monday searched for anyone trapped amid the piles of splintered wood and belongings strewn across yards. Hospitals took in more than 100 patients.
The tornado that hit the town and nearby Mayflower was probably the nation's strongest so far this year on the 0-to-5 EF scale, with the potential to be at least an EF3, which means winds greater than 136 mph, National Weather Service meteorologist Jeff Hood said.
It wrecked cars and trucks along Interstate 40 north of Little Rock. Also among the ruins was a new $14 million intermediate school that had been set to open this fall.
"It's amazing to me how wide it was," Mayflower Mayor Randy Holland said. "It was the loudest grinding noise I've ever heard."
Arkansas Gov. Mike Beebe said officials didn't yet have a count of the missing. He said the dead included a woman who was in a safe room but was hit by debris that went through the door.
"Mother nature and tornadoes, sometimes you can't explain how that works," Beebe said.
Three people died when the tornado tore a Paron home down to the foundation. Emily Tittle, 17, said her family took shelter under the stairs of their two-story home before the twister ripped the walls away. She said her father, Rob Tittle; 20-year-old sister Tori and 14-year-old sister Rebekah were killed, and her six other siblings were taken to hospitals.
In Vilonia, Raella Faulkner and Bobby McElroy picked through their demolished home, searching for family photos and a bow-and-arrow kit belonging to McElroy's son. The two had taken refuge from the storm in an underground storm shelter about 10 feet from their home.
"We were going to get married. Now I guess we'll have to wait," McElroy said.
Homes in the South are frequently built on concrete slabs, without basements. Slabs are cheaper and easier, and the need to protect pipes from freezing by putting them below ground is not as great as it is in the North.
For storm shelters, many people in the South and other parts of Tornado Alley in the nation's midsection have holes dug into the sides of hills with a door attached to the front. But these tend to be in older homes.
Hall Sellers, 53, was in the Vilonia home he built a decade ago when the warnings grew more intense. He had been through plenty of storms, including the twister three years ago that damaged the house, but this time he and his wife scrambled across the street to another home that he owns, an older one with an old-fashioned storm cellar.
"I don't know," Sellers said. "I don't usually go to the cellar, but this just felt right this time."
A neighbor wasn't so lucky. Sellers said his body was found 300 yards away in a field.
"If I'd have known he was home, I would have gotten him into the cellar," Sellers said.
Sara Sutter, 23, was at her brother's home when the storm hit. When the home was built a year ago, the builder urged construction of a safe room. On Sunday, Sutter, her mother, father and brother huddled in the safe room until the twister passed.
"Building the safe room was a great decision," Sutter said.
A separate twister killed one person in Quapaw, Okla., on Sunday evening, then crossed into Kansas, where it destroyed more than 100 homes and businesses and injured 25 people in the city of Baxter Springs. A farm building collapsed in Iowa from either a tornado or powerful straight-line winds, killing one woman.
DeMillo reported from Mayflower. Associated Press writers Justin Juozapavicius in Vilonia, Christina Huynh in Mayflower, Jill Bleed in Little Rock; Kristi Eaton and Tim Talley in Oklahoma City; and Roxana Hegeman in Baxter Springs, Kan., contributed to this report.