"Enterprise has suffered major and widespread damage," Governor Bob Riley, who declared a state of emergency and sent 100 National Guard troops to the town, said.

Riley said rescue workers were still moving debris to search for survivors as night fell.

Search for survivors

Alabama state officials sent search and rescue teams, ambulances, generators and emergency lights to Enterprise to help with the search for survivors.

Tornado facts and figures
- Tornadoes can reach wind speeds of 400kph.

- An average of 1,000 tornadoes a year are recorded in the US.

- An average of 80 deaths and 1,500 injuries a year are caused by tornadoes in the US. 

- The deadliest tornado in the US killed 695 people in Missouri, Illinois and Indiana in 1925.

Source: US National Oceanic
& Atmospheric Administration
Emergency officials told local news broadcasters that at least one teacher was among those killed at the school.

More than 50 people were hospitalised as the violent storm, which struck at 1.15pm, crossed the state.

"It is complete devastation," Sheriff Russell Thomas told WSFA television as he assisted in rescue efforts in Enterprise. "It is very tragic."

Telephone services and electricity supplies were out through much of the area.

"To the best of our knowledge there was at least one significant tornado that went through the city of Enterprise," Tom Bradshaw, a meteorologist at the US national weather service headquarters for the southern region, said.
 
The burst of tornadoes was part of a bigger line of thunderstorms and snowstorms which stretched from Minnesota to the Gulf Coast.

Georgia deaths

The Sumter Regional Hospital in Americus, Georgia reportedly received a direct hit from a tornado. Buzz Weiss, spokesman for the Georgia Emergency Management Agency, said it was not known whether the two people who died in the city were patients at the hospital.
   
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"Sumter County has apparently lost of all its ambulances and rescue vehicles," Weiss added.

In the Missouri town of Caulfield, a tornado killed a 7-year-old girl in a mobile home, damaging six other homes and two petrol stations, officials said.
 
Scott Stanzel, spokesman for George Bush, the US president, said Bush was "deeply saddened" by the deaths and had offered federal help to the affected states.