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4/14/06-Iowa City, IA

Tornadoes Tore Across Iowa

Tornadoes tore across a university campus overnight, ripping roofs and walls off a sorority house, homes and apartments, crushing cars, and killing a woman in a mobile home southeast of town.

University of Iowa sophomore Melissa Fortman huddled with her sorority sisters in a basement as the sirens sounded, then decided to run upstairs for her homework just as the tornado was about to hit.

"There was debris flying everywhere inside the house," Fortman told ABC's "Good Morning America" early Friday. "I couldn't go downstairs because there was debris and glass flying up the stairs, so I just hid in a telephone booth we have in our house and I just hid there crying."

As she stood outside the Alpha Chi Omega house Friday morning, entire walls were gone and the interior of several rooms could be seen from the street. Two cars had been tossed into a nearby ravine, and glass, debris and tree limbs littered the yard.

The twisters swept across eastern Iowa, with the worst damage in a path from Iowa City southeast through the small town of Nichols, about 20 miles away, the National Weather Service said.

"We have a path in the Nichols area that's four to five miles long," said Maj. Dave White of the Muscatine County sheriff's office.

He said the tornado hit farms, knocked a tractor-trailer off a road, then hit the mobile home with a man and woman inside.

"It blew it off the foundation and the trailer rolled and basically disintegrated," White said. He said the man was "banged up" but he refused medical attention. The woman, whose identify was not released, died in the storm.

In Iowa City, 21 people were reported treated at hospitals for storm-related injuries, none believed to be life-threatening.

"We don't have any reports of serious injuries, which is short of miraculous considering what some of the damage appears to be," University of Iowa spokesman Steve Parrot said.

The tornadoes left entire neighborhoods in disarray as strong wind and hail pounded the city.

Downtown, half the roof of St. Patrick's Catholic Church was torn off. Store windows were shattered, some buildings were partially collapsed and homes and apartments were heavily damaged. Thousands of homes were without power Friday morning.

Parrot said the university opened the Iowa Memorial Union and brought in mattresses for students needing a place to stay and canceled class on Friday.

Ryan Gibney just felt lucky to be alive Friday morning. His distressed call to 911 after a tornado hit an Iowa City shop captured the moments of chaos in the storm's immediate aftermath.

"Please. I'm underneath a wall, the whole building collapsed," Gibney can be heard telling the dispatcher. "I didn't know what happened. I opened the door right before it ripped the ceiling right off the side of the shop. I can't get the door off me, I'm pinned right now. Please help me."

His leg was injured, but he was able to walk and help with the cleanup the next morning.

"I thought that was going to be the end of it for me for sure," Gibney told "Good Morning America."

The storm system knocked down trees and power lines in northwest Illinois communities as well after crossing the Mississippi River around 10 p.m.

In neighborhoods across Iowa City, people pilled up tree limbs, splintered wood, brick and roofing materials as they cleared streets and yards.

In a downtown parking lot, cars sat amid broken glass and metal parts, with one vehicle overturned and others blown several feet from their original parking spots. Police said a roof collapsed at a pedestrian mall. A water line broke and there were concerns about gas lines.

Firefighter Darrall Brick looked on with dismay after the storm as he watched some people walking around downed power lines.

"These students just don't realize how dangerous it is," he said, noting how the crowds have prevented emergency crews from traveling to disaster sites.

The Iowa National Guard deployed 25 soldiers early Friday morning to provide security, keep people away from danger spots and help assess damage, said spokesman Lt. Col. Greg Hapgood.

MidAmerican Energy reported early Friday morning that about 7,000 homes and businesses in eastern Iowa were without power -- including 6,200 in Iowa City. Officials said crews would work through the night but could not say when the power would be restored.

Copyright 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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