HENRYVILLE, Indiana (Reuters) - Violent storms and tornadoes raked across a huge swath of the U.S. Midwest and Southeast, killing at least 36 people in four states, authorities said on Saturday.

The fast-moving twisters spawned by massive thunderstorms splintered blocks of homes, damaged a prison and schools and tossed around vehicles like toys across the region, leaving 18 people dead in Kentucky, 14 in neighboring Indiana, three more in Ohio, and one in Alabama, officials said.

"We're not unfamiliar with Mother Nature's wrath out here in Indiana," GovernorMitch Daniels told CNN during a visit to the stricken southeast corner of the state.

"But this is about as serious as we've seen in the years since I've been in this job," he said, standing against the backdrop of the hard hit town of Henryville.

Friday's storms, spanning all the way from the Gulf of Mexico into the Great Lakes, came on top of deadly severe weather earlier in the week in the Midwest and brought the overall death toll to 49.

Tony Williams, 46, owner of the Chelsea General Store in southern Indiana said four people died in the Chelsea area, including 4-year-old Daylin Terry Jackson and his great grandparents, Terry and Carol Jackson in their late 60s.

The boy and his mother, Amanda Jackson, were in a basement when the storm hit about 3 p.m. local time Friday. He was torn from her arms by thetornado. The mother survived, but her grandparents who were upstairs, both died.

"She was in the cellar with the boy when the tornado hit. It blew him right out of her hands," Williams said. "They found the bodies in the field outside," he added, referring to Daylin and his great grandparents.

Williams said 60 local school children took refuge in his store overnight.

In Salem, Indiana, west of Chelsea, a 2-year-old girl was found alive in a field after a twister cut through the area, authorities said.

"When she was brought down here they didn't know who she was," said Brian Rublein, a spokesman for Kosair Children's Hospital in Louisville, Kentucky, where the girl was taken by helicopter. "At last report she was in critical condition," Rublein said.


In Henryville, birthplace of Harland David "Colonel" Sanders who founded theKentucky Fried Chicken fast-food chain, ground zero was a downtown complex housing an elementary, junior high and high school, where 1,400 students go on a normal day.

Almost all the students were evacuated Friday afternoon, before the tornado struck. But about 40 staff and students who were the last to leave on school buses turned back when they saw ominous signs of the approaching storm in the sky.

They took shelter in an inner office in the elementary school where they rode out the tornado, even as it ripped the front off the elementary school building, leaving a dangling mess of twisted metal and insulation.

"We could have been in big trouble," said Pam Horton, the elementary school treasurer. "I will never take tornado warnings lightly again," she said.

"It's shocking," Henryville High School Principal Troy Albert told a local TV station. He said he was "just amazed" that everyone at the school eventually managed to get out safely.

One of the school buses was flipped onto its side by the storm. Another sat with its engine sheared clean off the chassis and its rear end embedded in the front of Budroe's restaurant, a diner across the street where other residents had taken shelter.

Miraculously, only one resident of the town died, according to rescue officials.