Twister of Fate

updated 05/19/2003 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/19/2003 AT 01:00 AM EDT

The clocked stopped at 9:08 on Sunday evening May 4. That's when the tornado hit Martha Wampler's house in McCrory, Ark. Wampler, 52, was huddled with her granddaughter Anna, 3, in the hall as winds that reached 160 mph tore at the roof. Within seconds the ceilings began to collapse all around them—everywhere, that is, except in the hall, where even a table with photographs barely shook. "Things whirled around us—leaves, debris," says Wampler, who is raising her granddaughter. "But we were not touched. We were truly blessed."

Throughout the South and Midwest that night others were not so lucky. The unusually severe weather system that generated the McCrory twister spawned dozens of others that killed at least 37 people. Fortunately no one was seriously injured in McCrory, where residents had about 10 minutes warning of the twister's approach. But afterward Wampler was amazed at the damage to her house, which included a tree in the living room. "Someone's shoes and blankets and pants and coats were in the house," she says. "I have no idea who they belong to."

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