By Alicia Dennis
May 16, 2011 12:00 PM

Police chief Darwin Hathcock watched transfixed with horror as the half-mile-wide gray funnel cloud headed toward the police station in Smithville, Miss., a small rural town near the Alabama border, on April 27. “My only thought was, ‘We’re going to die,'” says Hathcock, 48. He raced inside his office, barking orders to employees to take cover when the tornado hit-instantly blowing up the building and sending Hathcock and his son Joshua, 24, flying eight feet through the air, desperately gripping each other as they looked up in terror at the dusty, swirling funnel filled with limbs, leaves and tin. “It was sucking us out,” says Hathcock. “If it had lasted much longer, we couldn’t have held on.”

In life-altering seconds, thousands of lives, homes and businesses have been sucked away-erased. Across the South a shape-shifting storm system has crushed entire towns (and records), leaving a swath of desolation resulting in at least 340 deaths, thousands of people homeless or injured and millions in property damage. Twisters struck Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, Tennessee and Virginia this week, with a historically freakish one-day concentration of hundreds of tornadoes hitting on April 27, primarily in Alabama.

More than 600 tornadoes hit the country this April alone, shattering the former April record of 267 in 1974. “It’s unbelievable,” says Laura Furgione, 40, deputy director of the National Weather Service. “It is horrific.”

Survivors tell science-fiction-like stories of being pulled into powerful winds, hiding in closets and coming out to find their entire neighborhood pulverized and discovering possessions hundreds of miles away. Bonnie Lake, 52, of Apison, Tenn., just had time to text her husband, Jud, 52, and daughter Shelly, 25, “tornado hit house” before diving into her hallway as glass shards rained down from exploding windows. She wrapped her arms around her chocolate Labrador Briley, who she says was being “sucked up.” Then she was hit by her bedroom door. “I know I need to live every day as if it’s my last,” says Lake, weeping. “I look at my husband and child, and I want to hug them and never let go.”

In Tuscaloosa, Ala., where much of the college town lay in ruins, Mayor Walter Maddox, 38, says his staff is struggling to respond, having lost police and fire stations in the storm. “It is a very dark hour, but the people have been very inspiring,” says Maddox, who witnessed dozens of citizens digging through rubble and removing debris as they searched for survivors. “My heart is broken,” he says, “but my spirit is strong.”