Before any alarm could be sounded this morning, twin tornadoes that joined after touching the ground ripped through this west Texas town, killing at least one person.
Authorities said the fast-moving storm injured more than 90 people and caused millions of dollars in damage.
About 600 homes were destroyed and 200 others damaged, Mayor Rick Rhodes said. He put the number of homeless at more than 2,000 in this town of 12,000 and imposed a 7:30 p.m. curfew in the damaged areas.
Henry Earl Tatum, 87, was killed when the house he was living in collasped during the storm, police said. Five people who had been reported missing were later found safe.
"I am totally amazed. It is incredible to see the devastation and imagine that there was only one fatality," Rhodes said at a news conference late today.
The mayor said he would ask that the National Guard be sent in to maintain order, and Gov. Mark White (D) complied tonight. White was scheduled to tour the damaged areas Sunday.
The storm hit about 7 a.m. while most people in this town -- already battered by falling oil prices and poor farm prices -- were asleep.
"We had no warnings, because the sirens didn't go off," said Frances Chapin, 59, who was awake when the tornado hit.
"The first thing I heard was something that hit this window and knocked it out, and we ran into the closet," she said. Glass, dirt and debris smashed through the window, then the remaining windows broke, she said.
"Our house shook for so long," she said. She and her husband were not injured.
"It was a total surprise," said Nolan County Sheriff James Blackley, whose jurisdiction includes Sweetwater. "I believe as it was going down that we received a call from the National Weather Bureau in Abilene, telling us there was a tornado over Sweetwater. But it was already in progress and tearing things up."
Curly Ware, a longtime repairman with West Texas Utilities, said it was the worst tornado damage he had ever seen. "They tell you it will sound like a freight train. I can tell you for sure, that it is just what it sounds like," he said.
During the storm, Ware stood near his front door, then watched in amazement as his porch was torn from the ground and tossed over his roof. He was not injured.
Authorities said two funnel clouds touched down in succession, then joined together to devastate an area a half-mile wide and two miles long. The tornado hit a downtown section of the city, damaging about a dozen businesses, before skipping to an area containing low-income housing, a retirement community and mobile homes.
The injured were taken to Rolling Plains Memorial Hospital, where 11 people were admitted and 67 were treated and released. Eleven others were transferred to two hospitals in Abilene, about 40 miles west of here. Doctors said the injured included a 6-year-old boy in critical condition and a 10-month-old infant in serious condition.
Adam Gutierrez, 12, said he watched the tornado as it cut across Sweetwater, picking up cars that "looked like they exploded."
"My father told us to come outside, and there was that tornado coming down," Gutierrez said. "We didn't know what to do, we were all nervous."
"It hit the bridge and there were some accidents over there," he said, pointing to the southern edge of town near Interstate 20.
David Shumaker said the tornado tossed him from the house he was in onto the roof of a next door neighbor's home. He received a minor cut on the head.
Sweetwater policeman Ray Carnathan said a car carrying two people was thrown into a tree. They were not injured, but the driver found a kitten in the back seat of her car, Carnathan said, apparently thrown, unhurt, into the car by the strong winds.
The tornado missed the home of Johnny Straley by less than a block. "I heard it coming through," he said. "I looked outside and saw things flying by. I guess I'm just real lucky. It didn't even get a shingle on my house."
Sweetwater residents were warned not to drink water without boiling it because electricity had been knocked out at the town's filtration plant.
The American Red Cross opened a shelter for the homeless at Broadway Baptist Church here.