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High tornado death toll in Mississippi like losing family

ROLLING FORK, Miss. (AP) — Lonnie and Melissa Pierce lived a quiet, peaceful life in the Mississippi Delta before a powerful tornado swept up a neighbor’s semi-truck and dropped it onto their brick home like a bomb, killing the married couple.

A retired welder, Lonnie Pierce was fond of hunting and bass fishing, friends and neighbors said. Melissa Pierce 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 Pierce for decades.

A mound of broken rubble was all that remained of the couple’s home after a devastating twister packing winds of up to 200 mph (320 kph) tore through the rural town of Rolling Fork late Friday. The 18-wheeler that had been parked next door before the storm hit remained perched atop the debris Monday, and deer antlers that had been among Lonnie Pierce’s hunting trophies covered the couple’s yard.

At least 21 people in Mississippi and a man in Alabama perished as menacing storms trekked across the Deep South over the weekend. The toll was especially steep in Sharkey County, in western Mississippi, where the Pierces were among 13 people who died in a county of 4,200 residents.

“I had to identify family, that’s what it felt like,” said Sharkey County Coroner Angelia Eason. “We’re a close-knit community; we’re small. And 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 others Eason identified as having died in the storm included a woman and her elderly mother, as well as a man from Yazoo City, who had traveled more than 30 miles (48 kilometers) west to Rolling Fork for an auction.

April Johnson was working at her job as a discount store cashier in Rolling Fork when the storm struck and destroyed the business. The mother of five children was also among those the coroner confirmed had lost their lives.

“She was a hardworking, loving kind who would go out of her way to help people,” said Dianne Berry, a cousin to Johnson’s mother. “She always had a smile.”

Berry said Johnson’s son played football, and Johnson was always willing to drive other children to games and practices. “She would fix them little snack bags,” Berry said.

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.

In addition to the heavy death toll, the same storm system resulted in dozens of people injured and hundreds of homes and buildings destroyed or damaged during a punishing four-day period in which it pummeled the South from Texas to the Carolinas.

In the Mississippi neighborhood where the Pierces were killed, it was almost 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 Cockrell said. “Everything’s torn to pieces.”


AP reporter Emily Wagster Pettus contributed to this story from Jackson, Mississippi.

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