Tuscaloosa, Alabama (CNN) -- Leveled buildings, fallen trees and massive piles of rubble stretched across wide swaths of the South Thursday after destructive tornadoes and severe storms tore through the region.
In all, the death toll from the wave of powerful storms that struck Wednesday and early Thursday was more than 280 people in six states. In Tuscaloosa alone, at least 36 people lost their lives.
Officials scrambled to assess the damage. Doctors treated hundreds of injured. And dazed residents wandered the streets, telling harrowing tales of devastation and survival.
Employees huddled in a windowless break room at a CVS drug store in Tuscaloosa as a tornado approached and a deafening roar filled the air, store manager Michael Zutell said. A mother cradling an infant sprinted inside just before the twister hit.
"Glass is breaking. The woman with the baby is screaming. Part of the drop ceiling fell and boxes fly in," he said.
No one inside the store was injured, Zutell said. "It's mind-boggling to think you walked away."
Nurse Rachel Mulder said she and her husband rode out the storm in the bathtub of their second-floor apartment in Duncanville, Alabama. After the tornado passed, only their bathroom was standing.
"My husband was walking around, looking for survivors and called me over and said...'Come here, someone is dying.' So I grabbed my first-aid kit and ran down the stairs to try and help her," she recalled. "I tried to stop her bleeding and save her, but she was taking her last breath."
Bill Dutton found his mother-in-law's body hundreds of yards from the site of her Pleasant Grove, Alabama, home, which was swept away down to the foundation.
"The last thing she said on the phone, she was taking shelter in a closet," he said.
Reba Self frantically searched for her mother after a tornado pummelled their home in Ringgold, Georgia.
"I'm screaming for her, 'Answer me, Mom -- please, Mom, answer me.' I didn't hear anything. It turns out she had gotten out of the house and walked around to the basement door, and she asked me if I was OK."
Now, they're trying to make the best of the situation.
"I'm laughing at her because she's in the house with a broom, sweeping. I told her, 'Mom, the house is gone, you can put the broom down,'" Self said.
The widespread devastation in areas across the South left residents reeling Thursday.
"It looks like an atomic bomb went off in a straight line," said Dr. Brian Wilhite, an internist at Druid City Hospital in Tuscaloosa who tended to the wounded.
The facility was overrun with hundreds of people who suffered injuries, including head injuries or lacerations, he said.
"It looked more like a Vietnam War site than a hospital," Wilhite said. "I know one physician who watched two people die right in front of him. There was nothing he could do."
A video shot from the third floor of the University of Alabama's basketball coliseum shows a large mass sucking everything into forbidding dark clouds above.
Christopher England, who recorded the video, said the tornado looked like a movie scene.
"It was unreal to see something that violent and something that massive," he said.
Tuscaloosa Mayor Walter Maddox estimated that the destruction spanned a length of five to seven miles, and was a mile wide in some areas.
The challenges facing the city were daunting. The mayor said they were short on manpower, materials and equipment.
The lifelong resident of Tuscaloosa said the damage was unlike anything he had seen before.
"I don't know how anyone survived," he said.
CNN's Wayne Drash, Reynolds Wolf, Mariano Castillo, Matt Cherry and Martin Savidge contributed to this report