Firefighter Dan McDonald raised his ax and plunged it into the carcass of a mobile home, looking for life but half-expecting to find more death. It was a dozen hours after a rare November tornado hopscotched across southwestern Indiana, snapping trees, obliterating trailers and killing at least 23 people.

"It's terrible, man. I'm heartbroken," said McDonald, who arrived with a crew from Zion, Ky. "Everything people worked for is gone. Lives are gone. Children. This ain't even my community and I felt like crying all the way back to the street."

Turning back to his task, he said, "You've just got to keep digging."

The twister struck without warning in Sunday morning's wee hours, as its victims slept. It was not only the worst tornado in the state in 31 years, it was easily the most unexpected. Survivors in sturdier houses said they were startled awake when everything went bang and debris started flying.

"It was fast, 10 seconds maybe," said the Rev. Paul DeHart, who awoke as a line of thunderstorms churned through Newburgh, Ind. "There was a loud boom, and everything shook. We hit the ground. The glass was flying all over the place."

The tornado did its worst damage at the Eastbrook Mobile Home Park in Evansville, where McDonald and dozens of rescue workers used bulldozers, tall cranes and bare hands to search for the living and the dead alike. The only thing typical about the twister was its capriciousness. One trailer would barely be mussed while the one next door was shattered into kindling.

Assistant Chief Larry Krack of the Perry Township Fire Department and his crew helped save an 8-year-old boy from a ditch where the tornado had tossed him. The boy had been pinned there for more than 10 hours but lived to joke with his rescuers that the tornado was interfering with his hunting plans.

"He was really high-spirited. He was giving us a hard time," said Krack, who was still shaking his head two hours later about the discovery of the boy beneath a hunk of trailer wall and a mattress that had created "just a void big enough for him." Authorities believe a twister with winds between 158 mph and 206 mph bounced across northern Kentucky -- where it damaged the Ellis Park horse racetrack -- and leapt the Ohio River into Indiana, cutting a path about three-quarters of a mile wide and perhaps 15 to 20 miles long. The 23 confirmed dead were in a pair of neighboring Indiana counties, said Vanderburgh County coroner Don Erk, who said the cause was often blunt trauma or a broken neck.

Not since April 3, 1979 -- when a string of tornadoes killed 47 people and destroyed more than 2,000 houses -- had Indiana suffered such a serious natural disaster. Erk, who said three young children are among the known dead, described the situation as "a total state of shock."

Navy Reserve Lt. Lucy McCracken tended to a 48-year-old Eastbrook man whose wife died and two children were injured by the whipping winds.

"Took him for treatment, took him to the hospital, took him to the morgue. It's a little more than I'd hoped for today," said McCracken. "He said, 'I have nothing.'" The man told McCracken that he had awakened in chaos, stripped of his clothes by the wind. He found his wife's body outside and learned later that his children were alive. Someone gave him some clothes.

As McCracken saw it, walking amid the rubble, the moment was unfathomable.

"In 10 seconds," she said, "your life is totally twisted around."

Several survivors said the tornado came and went just that fast.

Chris and Brad Hilton got a call in Newburgh shortly after 2 a.m. from their mother, who was working the third shift at a hotel. She had seen a storm warning on television. Within minutes, the brothers heard the rumble of the approaching twister. The telephone went dead, the television blinked off, and the floor began to shake.

They dashed for the basement and were halfway down the stairs when the tree-snapping storm hurled a limb through the roof that knocked into Chris Hilton's shoulder.

"It was fast," said Hilton, 41. "Ten or 15 seconds later, I came back upstairs and it looked like a bomb had gone off."

The twister blew out every window in Barbara Frederick's house in Newburgh. Moments after 9-year-old Justin darted into his parents' room, they jumped out of bed. Before they could get to the basement, the windows crashed open, and the wind blew the bedroom door from its hinges, knocking her husband to the floor.

Sixteen-year-old son Kyle, sleeping near a large window, woke up in an explosion of leaves, glass, insulation and dirt that roared in as if fired by a cannon.

"He saw the outside and started yelling for us," Frederick said. "He pulled the covers over his head and hung on."

Later Sunday, friends helped the family nail four-by-eight sheets of plywood across the windows and cover the roof. They swept up some of the jetsam but left the rest for another day, not sure if the house can be saved. Frederick carried out a pet fish in a beer cooler.

"All this stuff was swirling. I don't know if it was the mud or the dust," she said. "It's like a dream now. Did it really happen?"

Staff writer Charles Lane in Washington contributed to this report.

Robert Brown, above right, helps father-in-law John Jackson from the ruins of Jackson's home in Newburgh, Ind., where the tornado struck early Sunday.Firefighter Dan McDonald searches for survivors in the devastated Eastbrook Mobile Home Park in Evansville, Ind.