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.
On Monday, tornados flattened homes and businesses and flipped trucks over on highways, killing at least seven people in Mississippi and two in 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.