Jessica Berzack was on the 11th floor of her dormitory when the tornado sirens sounded. She fled with about 50 other students to the basement of the theater department, which was built years ago as a nuclear fallout shelter.
"It was terrifying," said Berzack, a freshman at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa.
When they emerged to inspect the damage, they
"Restaurants that have been here for years and years were completely gone," she said. "It was post-apocalyptic almost."
Jay Williams was standing on the front porch of the Kappa Sigma fraternity house. One minute, he said, the clouds were racing left to right, then suddenly, they were moving right to left.
"It was probably less than a hundred yards away, we saw the large funnel cloud," Williams said. "There was wood and paper and debris flying around."
He and about 30 friends raced to the house's basement, where they stayed for about 10 minutes.
"It looked like a war zone," he said of what the area around the house looked like when they ventured outside.
Berzack and Williams are both from Northeast Georgia. Both experienced the powerful tornado that ripped through Tuscaloosa, a city of about 83,000, late Wednesday. There didn't appear to be significant damage on campus, they said. But a major commercial strip and several neighborhoods were leveled by the tornado.
The tornado was part of the largest outbreak of tornadoes since the early 1970s. Nearly 200 people have died in six states. Two University of Alabama students are among the 36 deaths reported in Tuscaloosa. But all of Berzack's and Williams' friends are safe.
"We're fortunate," Berzack said. "Everyone is fine."
That his son survived the deadly storm was great news to Bert Williams of Gainesville. He spent nearly an hour trying desperately to contact his son after hearing about the tornado from his brother.
"It was a surreal time," Bert Williams said. "My brother called and asked if I had talked to Jay. When I said I hadn't, he told me I needed to. It was a tough time. We were hearing reports of whole buildings being destroyed."
Finally, he got an email from his son and knew he was safe.
Caryl Berzack of Banks County was working in her barn when Jessica called her.
"She said, ‘Mom, have you heard what's going on over here?' But I hadn't. That's when I turned on the TV and starting hearing the reports," Berzack said.
Power is out in most of Tuscaloosa, including the university campus. Jessica Berzack said a number of students are huddled in a handful of restaurants that are attempting to operate on generator power.
The university canceled final exams and postponed commencement from May until August. Dozens of students and locals were staying at a 125-bed shelter in the campus recreation center.
Without electricity, communications became more difficult as cell phone batteries died. Berzack's phone died, but, using a friend's phone, she was able to text back and forth with her mother to help keep some of her friends from Atlanta updated on the storms as they moved through Georgia.
"They couldn't watch TV or check the Internet, so they couldn't find out what was going on in Atlanta," said Caryl Berzack. "So I was texting back and forth until about 2:30 (Thursday) morning. It was a long night."
Jay Williams was talking with a reporter as he attempted to leave Tuscaloosa and return to Gainesville, but the phone calls was dropped several times. He was struggling Thursday afternoon to find a route out of town. The main road he uses to come home was blocked in several places by debris.
Jessica Berzack is just happy she and her friends are safe. Her dorm is open, but has no electricity so she planned to come home Thursday or today.
"There's so much damage," she said. "A lot of my friends' homes are damaged. Some are completely gone. There have been a lot of tears today."
Associated Press contributed to this report.