May 21, 2007 12:00 PM

On May 4, a tornado 1.7 miles wide and packing winds of more than 200 mph, the largest to touch down in the U.S. in eight years, hit Greensburg, Kans. (pop. 1,500). The tornado killed 10 people and Greensburg, for all intents and purposes, was gone. Survivors described the experience to PEOPLE’s Chad Love:

CRAIG MORFORD, 51, training supervisor for a local company: “We saw the clouds building up and didn’t think anything of it. When the siren went off, my wife, Brenda, finally got us all down in the basement and hunkered down among all the boxes and covered with mattresses and cushions. I still didn’t think there was much to it, but my wife called her nephew in [nearby] Haviland and put the TV coverage on speakerphone. We could hear the reports as it got closer, 12 miles away, eight miles away, four miles away. They were saying it’s headed straight for Greensburg.”

BRENDA MORFORD, 48: “I thought, ‘We’ve got to get in the basement now!’ I look around and Craig’s kicked back in the recliner watching Futurama. I said, ‘You’ve got to get your butt to the basement!’ I grabbed a mattress and ran downstairs. You could just hear the urgency in the announcer’s voice. God, it was terrifying!”

CRAIG MORFORD: “It got to about three miles and the lights went out, and I thought this thing may be bigger than I thought. That’s when the pressure dropped, our ears popped and we started hearing things hit the house. The floor shifted and creaked; we heard a big banging sound, then nothing. That’s when we heard the rain above us, and I knew there was nothing up there anymore.”

ELVETA KELLER, 69, part-time convenience store clerk: “I grabbed my dogs Chrissy and Wiggles and ran for the bathroom. When the tornado came, I heard everything breaking up around me. It was just swirling all around, and I was just sitting there on the toilet holding my dog and praying to God. The only thing left of my house is the bathroom.”

GALEN BATTERSHELL, 53: “I jumped into the bathtub and started praying. I was terrified. After it passed I stood up, looked out of where my bedroom walls used to be and saw my neighbor standing up barefoot in his cowboy hat. It was actually a little comedic. I gave him a pair of my shoes, and we started walking down the street together.”

DOUG STAHL, 50, lives in the neighborhood: “Everything was flying across the room, bouncing off of us. A beam came completely through our house, through the walls like it was an arrow shot out of a bow.”

CRAIG MORFORD: “The only light we had was from our cell phone and a toy that lights up. When we crawled out of the basement, we could hear people crying for help, so we started looking for neighbors. They told everyone to go to the hospital, but it was gone too. People were driving cars with no roofs, no windshields and flat tires just to get people somewhere safe.”

ELVETA KELLER: “When I finally got out, I was stunned. I was in shock. I just thought, ‘What kind of storm was this to create all this damage and somehow I’m still standing here?'”

CRAIG MORFORD: “The meteorologist who issued the warning saved our lives. We had at least 20 minutes to get down in the basement. Without that warning I don’t think a lot of these people would be here.”

DANA TRUMMEL, 45, high school secretary: “Everybody has lost everything, but we’re going to rebuild, splinter by splinter, piece by piece. What else can you do? This is our home.”

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