Residents of some of the hardest hit neighborhoods in this town outside Norfolk were forced to evacuate their homes, with buses taking them to nearby shelters. Police closed roads, steering people away from streets with downed power lines.
Fallen trees and power cables covered the streets in a section of the city. A vending machine was tilted on its side, leaning up against a pile of rubble that had been the general store in a small shopping district.
"It's just a bunch of broken power poles, telephone lines and sad faces," said Richard Allbright, who works for a tree removal service in Driver and had been out for hours trying to clear the roads.
Gov. Timothy M. Kaine declared a state of emergency for the areas of southeastern Virginia struck by the twisters.
The National Weather Service confirmed that tornadoes struck Suffolk, Colonial Heights and Brunswick County. Meteorologist Bryan Jackson described Suffolk's as a "major tornado."
Jackson said the Brunswick County tornado was estimated at 86 mph to 110 mph, and cut a 300-yard path of destruction.
The first tornado touched down around 1 p.m. in Brunswick County, said Mike Rusnak, a weather service meteorologist in Wakefield. The second struck Colonial Heights around 3:40 p.m., he said.
The third touched down multiple times, between 4:30 to 5 p.m., and is believed to have caused damage over a 25-mile path from Suffolk to Norfolk, Rusnak said.
At least 200 were injured in Suffolk and 18 others were injured in Colonial Heights, south of Richmond, said Bob Spieldenner from the Virginia Department of Emergency Management.
In Colonial Heights, the storm overturned cars and damaged buildings in the Southpark Mall area.
Suffolk city spokeswoman Dana Woodson said the area around Sentara Obici Hospital and in the community of Driver, located within the city, were hardest hit. The hospital was damaged but still able to treat patients.
Insulation, wiring and twisted metal hung from the front of a strip mall in Suffolk that was stripped bare of its facing. Cars and SUVs in the parking lot outside lay strewn about, some lying on top of others.
Countless witnesses shuddered at their brief but violent brush with Mother Nature.
"All the glass and everything started going and you could see cars flippin'," Terrance Brunson told CBS News.
"He said get down," Glenna Brunson said, "and I got down and all the windows just blew out."
Several of Gregory A. Parker's businesses and his pre-Civil War-era home in Driver were damaged in the tornado.
The porch was blown off his Arthur's General Store. At another store he owns, the tin roof was rolled up like a sardine can. The facade of his home collapsed and the windows were blown out. Inside, furniture was tossed about.
"I hate to say it sounded like a train, but that's the truth," Parker said.
His wife, Ellise, rode out the storm in the first-floor bathroom of an antique store. The building lost its second story. His brother, Craig S. Parker, owns the general store that sells hunting and fishing supplies.
Parker is spending the night with his sister, who lives nearby.
"I don't even think a leaf blew off at her house. That's how tornadoes are," he said.
CBS News correspondent Andrea Stassou reported people tearing through the rubble in search of survivors.
"That building is demolished and we just start ripping stuff out looking for people," said Andrew Currence. "First we initially saw one lady upside down and as I was digging in a different area to try to get to her, another lady's hand popped out and startled me."
Sentara hospital spokesman Dale Gauding said about 60 injured people were being treated there, and he expected most to be released.
"We have lots of cuts and bruises" and arm and leg injuries, he said. The hospital's windows were cracked, apparently by debris from a damaged shopping center across the street.
Southside Regional Medical Center treated one storm victim with minor injuries and was poised to receive more, hospital spokeswoman Terry Tysinger said.
Property damage also was reported in Brunswick County, one of several localities where the weather service had issued a tornado warning. Sgt. Michelle Cotten of the Virginia State Police said a twister destroyed two homes. Trees and power lines were down, and some flooding was reported.
About 18,000 Virginia Dominion Power customers were without service, mostly in the Northern Neck.
Laura Southard, a state emergency management spokeswoman, said the damage assessment will be done Tuesday.