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Charlotte Observer: Killer Twisters Claim 5 In Carolinas

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As darkness fell in York County on Wednesday evening, resident Rusty Titchenal captured this photo of an apparent funnel cloud on the ground. Authorities say one person was killed in the storm, south of Rock Hill. Courtesy of Rusty Titchenall. ROCK HILL -- Searchers used thermal imaging equipment overnight as they combed fields and wooded areas in two Charlotte-area counties, looking for possible victims of tornadoes that killed at least five people Wednesday evening. Officials in York County and 80 miles to the northeast in Davidson County said at least 15 people were injured by the twisters, which struck shortly after sunset, when many people had just arrived home from work and were preparing for dinner. Three people were killed in the York County twister, which hit a rural area about five miles southwest of Rock Hill. Two people, including a child, were reported dead in Davidson County, with the damage centered about six miles southeast of Lexington. Authorities in each county say they will hold news updates this morning. Storm damage also was reported in Cleveland, Rowan and Randolph counties of North Carolina. Crews stepped up the search efforts at daybreak, and authorities said they expect to get a better idea of the true extent of the storm damage then. "There is an awful lot of damage down there -- an awful lot," said Steve Gamble, a resident of the Williamson Road area southwest of Rock Hill, where the tornado struck about 5:45 p.m. Three deaths were reported in that rural area, and crews scrambled into destroyed houses Wednesday evening, freeing some residents from piles of rubble. Five injuries were reported. Kevin Sinclair, who lives on Williamson Road, a crescent-shaped road off S.C. 324, said his family was eating dinner when the storm hit. He described a loud roaring sound and said the family took shelter until the noise went away. Sinclair ran across the street after seeing his mother-in-law's residence heavily damaged. Sinclair's mother-in-law was trapped by debris and had to be freed by rescuers with chain saws. York County Sheriff's Lt. Mike Baker said deputies and other emergency management officials went door to door during the night, checking to see if residents along S.C. 324, Williamson Road and Skyline Road were safe. Rescuers who took a break from their job early Thursday morning at a checkpoint along S.C. 324 described finding children's car seats and other personal belongings strewn on roads and in fields and wooded areas. The storm's winds tossed cars around and blew one mobile home off its foundation, flinging it hundreds of feet. Authorities reported seven residences either heavily damaged or destroyed. The sheriff's office has not released the names of the victims. Simone Moore, who lives on Saluda Road near the storm scene, told the Herald of Rock Hill that she saw the funnel cloud descend to the ground and then climb back into the air. "Everything's gone -- even the cows in the pasture," Moore told the Herald. Duke Power crews working to restore energy to the five-square-mile area affected by the tornado said the twister snapped off power poles and left lines and transformers littering the ground. Several officials noted that the casualty total might have been much higher if the tornado had touched down just a few more miles along its path, as it crossed the Rock Hill urban area. S.C. 324 is closed between the two ends of Williamson Road today, so crews can conduct cleanup and search efforts. It was much the same story farther to the north, in Davidson County. The tornado there was at the opposite end of the squall line that spawned the York County twister. In Davidson County, the storm also struck about 6 p.m. and damaged about two dozen homes. The area hardest hit was a few miles east of I-85, just south of U.S. 64, although the tornado also hit north of U.S. 64. Emergency services officials say the worst damage was along Old Burkhart, Young, Gordontown and Noahtown roads. A mobile home park on Noahtown Road was heavily damaged. Jeff Smith, of Davidson County Emergency Services, said the fatalities happened in the Old Burkhart Road area. The Times-Dispatch of Lexington said the victims were a woman, about 50 years old, and a 3-year-old girl. At least 10 injures were reported, and about two dozen residences were heavily damaged or destroyed. Two victims had serious injuries and were taken to Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem. Search crews used thermal imaging equipment during the night as they combed the fields and woods in the tornado damage area. Keith Smith, who lives on Arthur Kepley Road south of Lexington, told the Times-Dispatch of Lexington that the twister lifted he and his wife Cheryl off the ground as they huddled in the basement of their home, which was destroyed. He had warned his wife to seek shelter moments earlier, after hearing a loud roaring sound. "I know this sounds like a fairy tale, but ... it picked me up," Smith told the Lexington newspaper. Davidson County searchers said they found one boy alive in a field off Meadow Run Lane, near Old Burkhart Road, several hours after the storm passed. The child suffered serious injuries and was hospitalized. About 50 residents were displaced, and officials opened a shelter overnight at Davis-Townsend Elementary School, a mile north of where the tornado hit. Schools in Davidson County opened two hours late Thursday morning. Wednesday's tornadoes added another sad chapter to a year of storm tragedy in the Carolinas. The biggest outbreak of tornadoes in North Carolina history -- 28 twisters -- killed 22 people April 16. Both governors -- Nikki Haley in South Carolina and Bev Perdue in North Carolina -- issued statements overnight, saying they would provide assistance for local officials in dealing with the damage. The Herald of Rock Hill and the Lexington Times-Dispatch contributed Copyright 2011 The Charlotte Observer. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.