CHARLESTON, South Carolina (Reuters) - Tornadoes tore into the Carolinas on Saturday afternoon as the death toll rose to 20 people from storms across the southern United States over the last three days.
A mechanic at a tire shop in Raleigh, North Carolina, said he took shelter in his truck while co-workers squeezed into an interior room when the storm hit on Saturday afternoon.
"It was one hell of a storm," said Bryan Jackson. "I started to see the roof vibrate and then the roof separated and it was gone."
The area south of downtown Raleigh was littered with snapped telephone poles, downed wires, broken glass and roofing debris.
Three storm-related deaths were reported in Bladen County in eastern North Carolina, county emergency services said.
Six people were also injured when a tornado touched down in Berkeley County, South Carolina, between the towns of St. Stephen and Bonneau, the National Weather Service said.
The Weather Service said some mobile homes collapsed in Lee County, North Carolina, from the high winds. But local meteorologists said the storm's intensity was declining as it approached the coast.
At Ray Price Harley Davidson in Raleigh some 500 people had left the showroom's spring open house shortly before the storm hit around 4 p.m.
"We were very fortunate," said Dave Hushek, a manager at the Ray Price store. Echoing a familiar description of tornadoes, Hushek said, "It sounded like a train going by. The wind was going this way and then all the sudden it was going that way."
Storms have torn a path of destruction from Oklahoma on Thursday night through the deep South on Friday and on to the east coast on Saturday.
"This system has clearly had the most intense severe storms of the early spring season," said Corey Mead, a meteorologist with the National Storm Prediction Center.
On Friday seven people died in Alabama, seven in Arkansas and one in Mississippi. Two people were killed on Thursday night when a tornado flattened buildings in the town of Tushka, Oklahoma.
All the Alabama deaths were caused when mobile homes were blown off their foundations, according to Alabama Emergency Management spokeswoman Yasamie Richardson August.
They included an elderly man in Marengo County, a mother and two children in Washington County, and a father and his two adult children who lived near each other in Autauga County.
Greg Carbin, meteorologist with the Storm Prediction Center, said that Saturday would likely be the final day for the deadly storm system in the region.
Six of the seven fatalities in Arkansas were caused when uprooted trees smashed into houses, National Weather Service meteorologist John Robinson said.
Robinson said he could not recall a time when so many fatalities occurred because of fallen trees in Arkansas. Three of the Arkansas deaths were young children.
Carbin said this type of storm system in the South was not unusual for April, as moist spring air meets the remnants of cold winter air.
"You have just the right combination of ingredients for severe weather," Carbin said. "This is a dangerous time in the southern United States."
Tornado season typically runs from March to early July in the United States, moving from south to north as the year progresses. The storms kill an average of 70 people a year.
Not all of the deaths from the storms would be officially counted as tornado deaths, as some were likely due to high winds, Carbin said.
The worst U.S. outbreak of tornadoes on record occurred on April 3-4, 1974, when 307 people were killed by 148 twisters in 13 states.
Storms, some severe, also were expected Saturday from the Florida Panhandle through eastern and southern Georgia, according to weather.com.
Elsewhere, fire danger continues over the dry southern plains and some Midwestern states were hit by snow Saturday.
(Reporting by Peggy Gargis in Birmingham, Alabama; Harriet McLeod in Charleston, S.C.; Ned Barnett in Raleigh, N.C.; and Tim Ghianni in Nashville, Tennessee; Jim Brumm in Wilmington, N.C. Writing by Mary Wisniewski; Editing by David Bailey and Peter Bohan)