"We got hit," said Claudius R. Brewer in a Facebook post showing video of the massive spinning twister.
The tornado could be seen picking up debris and peeling the roof off a structure in Dortches, about 50 miles northeast of Raleigh.
Meteorologists with the National Weather Service said the 600-yard-wide tornado formed east of Raleigh around 12:25 p.m. and spent the next 33 minutes sweeping through communities along I-95 near Rocky Mount.
A storm survey team found the twister produced damage associated with estimated winds of at least 150 mph, giving the tornado the EF-3 rating on the Enhanced Fujita Scale.
It was the first EF-3 ever observed in central North Carolina in the month of July, the agency said.
A Pfizer facility took what appeared to be a direct hit from the tornado, halting operations at one of the most extensive sterile injectable processing facilities in the world.
The impacts will likely be felt nationwide as the country was already experiencing logistical shortfalls, health experts warned.