WILMINGTON, N.C. (AP) _ A weakened Hurricane Fran turned into a tropical storm today after submerging beach towns, ripping steeples off churches and snapping trees like sticks in its terrorizing path through the Carolinas. At least nine people were killed.

The storm touched down in Cape Fear with top winds of 115 mph Thursday evening, tearing up eastern North Carolina as winds swirled 145 miles out from the eye of the storm.

``It's whipping like crazy,'' said Annie Scott, 52. ``It's terrible. Tree limbs are down across the road and almost across my car.''

But the wind speed dropped hours after hitting land and the eye of the storm ceased to exist. By this morning, the National Hurricane Center in Miami had downgraded Fran to a tropical storm with maximum winds of 65 mph.

At 5 a.m., the storm's center was 25 miles north of Raleigh and moving northwest at 17 mph, the weather service said. The storm was expected to get weaker as it moved inland. Hurricane warnings and watches were dropped in North Carolina and Virginia.

As Fran drew near, more than a half-million tourists and residents had been ordered to evacuate the coast in North and South Carolina, leaving a string of deserted beach towns. More than 9,000 people packed shelters overnight, and many thousands booked up hotels across the Carolinas.

``I'm just happy to be here and to be able to bring my children,'' said Barbara Mosley, 49, who left her Wilmington home for a Red Cross shelter.

At least nine of those who stayed behind were killed, including a woman whose trailer was hit by a tree, another who slid off a flooded road and two men whose truck hit a downed tree.

Others who tried to stick it out panicked as Fran kicked in.

In Carolina Beach, the entire town was under water up to 8 feet deep when people in The Breakers condominium called 911 saying the building was collapsing.

Fran's top winds soon dropped to 100 mph, but the storm still caused damage on its way north, spinning off tornadoes and pushing a storm surge of up to 12 feet over beaches already washed out by Hurricane Bertha in July.

``Cars were floating by and hitting the building,'' said David Paynter, a spokesman for New Hanover County. Paynter didn't think the condo residents were in immediate danger, but it was impossible for rescuers to reach them safely.

The damage reports came in long before the light of day: a marina with 20 boats washed away in Shallotte Pointe, ocean piers that survived Bertha disappeared in the surf, and in Surf City, a tornado rocked a bridge, as power lines hit each other and exploded in the wind.

``It is pounding and pounding and pounding,'' said Mary Wasson as Fran passed over Wilmington, where she rode out the storm with her daughter in a house that narrowly missed being hit by a sycamore tree.

The wind blew steeples off churches in Wilmington and in Myrtle Beach, S.C., and ripped the dome off the Duplin County Courthouse in Kenansville, about 75 miles inland.

The hurricane knocked out electricity to more than 60,000 customers in South Carolina and hundreds of thousands more in North Carolina, leaving much of Raleigh and all of Wilmington County and Fayetteville in the dark.

In the port city of Wilmington, the only light came from headlights left blinking by wind-triggered car alarms, flashlights used to scan damage and generator-revived indoor lights.

``It's just a little scary with the wind blowing and the dark. Our shingles are blowing off the house,'' said Anne Seawell.

Hurricane warnings were dropped for all but North Carolina late Thursday. Tropical storm warnings were in effect for Virginia, where heavy rains were expected to soak already waterlogged areas.

The storm was expected to pass through Virginia, West Virginia, parts of Maryland and possibly Pennsylvania, bringing torrential rain and gusty winds, Mike Hopkins, a meteorologist with National Hurricane Center, said early today.

Ms. Seawell said she was confident her home would survive the storm, but she said the stream of hurricanes _ Bertha and Edouard last week _ was wearing her down.

``I won't continue living down here if they keep coming in every month,'' she said.