Lowe's store manager Michael Hollowell had heard the tornado warnings but his first clue that the danger was outside his front door came when he saw his staff running toward the back of the home improvement store.
More than 100 employees and customers screamed in near unison when the steel roof curled off overhead Saturday. The store was becoming part of the wreckage left by a ferocious storm system bristling with killer twisters that ripped through the South.
"You could hear all the steel ripping. People screaming in fear for their lives," Hollowell told The Associated Press on Sunday.
Those in the store did not become part of the death toll that totaled at least 44 across six states, and officials said quick action by Hollowell and his employees helped them all make it out alive in Sanford, about 40 miles south of Raleigh.
In all of Lee County, where Sanford is located, officials said there was just one confirmed fatality during the storm, which claimed at least 21 lives statewide, damaged hundreds of homes and left a swath of destruction unmatched by any spring storm since the mid-1980s.
In Raleigh early Monday, authorities were blocking access to a mobile home park of about 200 homes where three children were killed. Officials planned to assess conditions after sunrise before deciding whether to allow residents to return home.
Power lines and trees still covered nearby roads. Where roads were clear, there were massive piles of debris that had been pushed to the side of the street.
Gov. Beverly Perdue said Monday morning on NBC's "Today" show that she'd never seen anything like the devastation, saying it appeared that homes had been handled like paper doll houses. Search-and-rescue teams were still operating all over the eastern part of the state, and federal officials were beginning their damage assessments, she said.