Paramedics found the 4-year-old boy, Alix Bonhomme III, wrapped in the arms of his father, Alix Bonhomme Jr., in a sight so wrenching that even grizzled rescuers wept. Miraculously, a younger son in the bedroom wasn't hurt, nor was Bonhomme's fiancée, Marcie Moorer, who was sleeping in another room.
Moorer, who was still in pajamas hours later, said she still couldn't fathom what happened when the storm rumbled through Jackson, a town about 45 miles south of Atlanta. Her 3-year-old son Iysic rode his tricycle around a relative's front yard as she looked on.
"I'm still in shock. It hasn't hit me yet," said a bleary-eyed Moorer, who was planning to marry Bonhomme in July.
Later in the day, she added: "I'm just happy I have Iysic. That's all I can think about."
The storms were part of a system that cut a wide swath from the Mississippi River across the Southeast to Georgia and the Carolinas on Monday and early Tuesday. Drivers dodged debris during the morning commute in Atlanta, where one person was killed when a tree fell on his car.
The National Weather Service had confirmed at least six of the nearly two-dozen possible tornadoes it was investigating in several states, though the damage in Jackson was blamed on 60 mph winds that weren't part of a twister. The system that also knocked out power to hundreds of thousands had moved over the Atlantic Ocean by late morning.
In rural south Georgia, authorities said 45-year-old Christopher McNair was found dead under debris after a mobile home in Dodge County was ripped from its foundation by a tornado. Authorities say his body was thrown about 100 yards from the trailer, and three other people in the structure were injured.
A relative, Ricky McNair, described a desperate search for the man in an interview with WMAZ-TV.
"Oh my God, I was hollering at the top of my voice, hoping that he could hear me and hoping that I could hear him answer me," McNair said, choking back tears. "And when I found him, I just, I just broke down."
An unidentified Irwin County man was killed when a tree struck his home, according to emergency officials. And 56-year-old Ronnie Taylor, a Colquitt County road worker, was killed when he struck a large oak tree in the middle of the road as he was driving to work early Tuesday.
Memphis fire officials said an 87-year-old man found dead in his home Monday was electrocuted by a downed power line. In southern Mississippi, a 21-year-old man was killed when his car struck a tree that had fallen across a road, Copiah County coroner Ellis Stuart said.
The Georgia Department of Corrections said Robert Kincaid Jr., a state inmate being housed in the Colquitt County Prison, was killed Tuesday morning during storm cleanup. It was not immediately clear if weather was to blame for his death.
Elsewhere, emergency officials were thankful the storm didn't do greater damage.
Strong winds ripped off part of the roof of an Ashland City, Tenn. elementary school gymnasium, but officials said no children were injured. Seven people working at a plant in western Kentucky were injured Monday when a possible tornado hit, but dozens others were spared because they were on break at the time.
"We're fortunate not to have any serious injuries or death," Christian County Emergency Management Director Randy Graham said.
In Jackson, the mayor estimated it would take weeks - or longer - to clean the wreckage.
Some residents say they saw the sky turn an eerie green hue as the storm struck. Bennie Battle, Moorer's stepfather, said he remembers the sky lighting up as the worst of the weather hit.
"It was just a lot of wind and lightning," said Battle, who lives down the street from Moorer. "It was like being in the middle of a laser show."
Bonhomme Jr., a New York native whose accent made him stand out, worked two jobs to support his family at the Family Dollar and Little Caesars, both a short walk from their modest duplex. Friends and neighbors said he was a devoted father who was always quick to strike up a conversation.
"He was a hard-working kid and a family man," said Tray Head, a neighbor. "He was always in his yard playing with the kids. He was just about the nicest guy I ever met."
Firefighters swarmed Bonhomme's house after the storm passed, trying to save the father and son. Head saw some rescuers cry after they uncovered the bodies.
"You never see them cry because they're used to seeing everything," he said. "But when they saw that, they started bawling."
By Tuesday morning, the skies had cleared and the winds had died down. Tae Brannon, a relative of Moorer, surveyed the damage as tears welled in her eyes. A toy truck her nephew once played with was crushed under one of the limbs. A tie-dyed soccer ball, a stuffed animal and a car seat base were strewn throughout the yard.
"She and her son were saved by the grace of God," she said, shaking her head. "I guess you never know, but the lord knows best. He didn't put us here forever, and there's going to be a time when you have to leave."
Marcie's brother Jonathan Moorer, who rushed to the house clutching a picture of her family, burst into tears when he saw what remained. When he was asked how the community could help, he could only muster two words.
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)