Slouching toward Tuscaloosa

A massive tornado hit the Alabama town on April 27, 2011. Kim Cross re-creates the events of that day in ‘What Stands in a Storm.’ This is an excerpt from the book.

By Kim Cross | For the AJC

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. 5:07 p.m., April 27, 2011 — The sky above Tuscaloosa turned the color of a yellowing bruise. The birdsong stopped, and through the pregnant silence came the intermittent moaning of wind. The air held a charge. Now visible from the outskirts of town, the tornado emerged from the west. Even those who could not see it could feel its presence slouching across the horizon.

The dark column twisted down to the earth as the earth rose up to meet it. It plowed the verdant landscape, ripping up trees and chicken houses, grinding them up and spitting them out like shrapnel. Mesmerizing in its terrible beauty, it moved indiscriminately across the land, grinding at 60 miles per hour toward the city.

Across Alabama, people followed the black mass growing on their TV screens. In solid brick houses and double-wide trailers, in college dorm rooms and government projects, in church basements, corporate offices and living rooms, people watched it unfolding, live. Through the unblinking eye of the rooftop camera, the people of Tuscaloosa saw death come into town.

They had been given 64 minutes of warning.


How we got the story

Within the span of three days in April 2011, 349 tornadoes touched down in the United States, devastating lives and towns from Texas to New York, including Georgia, where more than 20 people were killed. Author Kim Cross details in gripping detail the heartbreaking havoc the storms wreaked across Alabama in her book “What Stands in a Storm” (Atria Books/Simon and Schuster). To learn more about what happens to the people whose lives she chronicles, check out her book at your local library or book store.

Suzanne Van Atten
Personal Journeys editor
personaljourneys@ajc.com

The rescuers of Tuscaloosa Fire Station No. 7 had been on edge all day. Their dispatch radio was oddly quiet. They had (TV meteorologist) James Spann turned up in the background as they readied their medical kits, checking and rechecking their equipment. When they heard the pitch of his voice begin to rise, all heads swiveled toward the TV.

“Look at that thing — it’s huge!” Spann said. “This is a very rare day. Reminiscent of the outbreaks of the ’70s, the Super Outbreak of ’74.”

The five men ran out the metal side door and into the engine bay, where two trucks stood by and pairs of yellow bunkers waited, puddled on the concrete. The men watched the blackness approach the southern edge of town, an industrial district filled with metal warehouses and boxy government buildings. The funnel was less than two miles away.

As the trees across Skyland Boulevard began to lean and sway, the firemen rolled down the metal door of the engine bay, protecting the trucks. Framed by the narrow windows, they watched grimly as flakes of drywall fell like snow on black asphalt.

“Everybody near Skyland Boulevard, be in a safe place!” Spann said on the station TV. “This is as violent a situation as you’ll ever see.”

The men ran for the bathroom. Drivers swerved off the road and banged on the station door. The firemen ran to let them in.



An aerial photo shows the devastation of The Rosedale Court housing community in Tuscaloosa, Ala., the day after tornadoes hit. Dusty Compton / The Tuscaloosa News / Associated Press. Click here to find many more photos of the destruction caused by the Tuscaloosa tornado.


“Nobody should be driving!” Spann’s voice boomed from the dashboard. “Everybody down there listening to me on the radio in Tuscaloosa, stop now. At the next exit, the next convenience store. Go into a business — they will let you in.”

Two young men racing across Tuscaloosa ignored the voice on the radio and kept driving directly toward the darkness gathering in the sky. The 25-year-old student behind the wheel, Ryne Chandler, had always wanted to see a tornado, ever since the movie “Twister.” He had no storm-chasing training and very little knowledge of meteorology. But he had lived in Tuscaloosa all his life, and he knew its streets as well as anyone. Well enough, he hoped, that he could find a quick escape route if this thing came their way.

Nate Hughett, his 22-year-old friend riding shotgun, filmed the drive down Veteran’s Memorial Parkway, pointing his camera west through the windshield. The rain had stopped, but the windshield wipers ticked back and forth like a metronome. Beyond them, the blackness rose from the treetops like a plume of smoke, indistinct but looming.

“This is a large wedge tornado,” Spann’s baritone boomed across the car radio. “This is making a beeline for downtown Tuscaloosa.”

“That’s exactly where we’re going.”

They were headed west on Veteran’s, which turned into 15th Street, a main thoroughfare through town. A few cars were still on the road, but most of them were headed rapidly in the opposite direction. A bolt of lightning lit the clouds as the amateur chasers passed University Mall. While they actually waited for the light to change at the corner of 15th Street and McFarland Boulevard, Hughett’s phone began ringing. Across the street, the Chevron station sign was still backlit, $3.69 Regular. In the passenger seat, Hughett set his camera on his lap, still rolling, to take the call.

“Hey. I’m good. Yeah, it’s pretty big. Uh, I see something that looks like a tornado ... Yeah. OK, I gotta go.”

They passed the neighborhood of Forest Lake and its ancient Druid oaks, Flowers Baking Co., and 15th Street Diner. They could see the tornado hovering in the distance above the empty parking lot of Temporary Emergency Services, which Danielle Downs, a college intern, had left less than two hours ago. On the radio, Spann kept saying the tornado was headed straight for downtown, so they headed instead toward the interstate, where they could beat a hasty retreat.

As they changed direction, they saw the funnel emerge above the treetops, growing thinner and taller, spinning faster. Billions of flecks danced around it in the air.

“There it is! There it is!” the passenger said, the camera zooming in his shaky hand. “You can see debris in the air. That thing is massive!”

They headed on I-359, trying to get behind it. Now they could see it, clear and full, towering above the industrial rooftops, growing by the second. They were now directly in its path.

“We need to go faster. It’s coming right at us!” “Jesus!”

The engine roared.

“Never in my life will I see this again.”

“Oh, my God ...”

They pulled to a stop on the side of the interstate and watched it through the rear windshield.

The sky was black, the enormous mesocyclone rotating above like a giant malevolent planet. From this freakishly powerful storm, a dark funnel spiraled to the ground, now less than a mile away. Suddenly, it seemed as if some great dimmer switch had bled the light and color out of the sky, leaving every surface looking dark and slick, as if the world were sweating oil. The funnel grew before them, drawing them closer, luring them in.

Photos from Ringgold and Rome

The same line of storms that hit Tuscaloosa on April 27, 2011, spawned a destructive tornado that hit northwest Georgia.

The driver turned the car around.

“Chandler, do not go back that way!”

“Nate, film it.”

“I am!”

“There’s two of them.”

“We need to go that way. (Expletive), go back!” “We’re fine. We’re fine.”

“Chandler, go the (expletive) back! I’m not kidding. We don’t know if this thing can change directions. We’re not experts!”

The driver jammed the car in reverse. They sped backward down the interstate.

“It’s crossing the interstate right where we were.”

Barely out of its path, the young chasers watched the EF4 tornado invade the city.

The tornado was a half mile wide when it entered Tuscaloosa. It barreled into the Tamko Roofing plant, inhaling nails and shingles and spitting them out. It slammed the Curry building, which housed the Tuscaloosa Emergency Management Agency, crushing steel-and-concrete walls built in the 1970s to withstand a nuclear fallout. Sheltering in an inner room, Battalion Chief Chris Williamson and Deputy EMA Director Billy Green saw the ceiling tiles begin to dance, and heard, through 18 inches of concrete, what sounded like a jet engine. The Emergency Operations Center, which held much of the city’s emergency rescue equipment, began to crumble.

Crossing I-359, the funnel toppled cars and semis, catapulting an elderly passenger — 73-year-old Minnie Acklin — from her car at the 35th Street exit to the very spot where the amateur storm chasers had been driving just minutes before. The tornado’s first victim, she left behind four children, eight grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.

The winds bent the steel beams of a warehouse and toppled the walls of a church. At the Salvation Army, 35 people sought refuge in the dining hall as the wind blasted open the doors and stripped away the roof. A steel building that crumpled like a wad of foil was hurled into the 70-bed shelter, which collapsed upon the impact. An electrical substation twisted like a telephone cord, and the lights went dark across town.



Bystanders look at storm damage along 15th Street, a main thoroughfare through Tuscaloosa, Ala. Dusty Compton / The Tuscaloosa News


Without power, the hallway of 31 Beverly Heights was enveloped by silence. In the sudden absence of Spann’s voice, in the void left by the whirring, buzzing things that fill the spaces between thoughts, the stillness felt thick and heavy, like being deep underwater. This kind of stillness is rare in our modern world, except when the power goes out.

College roomates Danielle Downs and Loryn Brown, along with Danielle’s friend Will Stevens, lay side by side in the silent hallway of the girls’ home. All of the light had drained out of the sky, and their faces glowed blue in the light of their phones, the last lifeline. The world outside was a carwash, sluicing and swirling and gathering in a seething cauldron of shadow and light, water and wind. Loryn dialed her mother.

“Mama, it’s so black!” she said. “I’ve never seen anything like this!” On the other end of the line, Ashley Mims could feel her daughter’s fear. The sky above Wetumpka was still sunny and blue, but she could feel the storm roiling deep in her gut. She stood before the TV in the living room, phone to her ear, relaying everything she saw and heard. Before her, the funnel seemed to double in size. She knew without having to look at a map that her child was in its path.

On TV, Spann sounded defeated.

“This is something you pray you never, ever, ever see,” he said. Every cell in Ashley’s body cried out in prayer. Choking on waves of panic and hope, she paced back and forth between the kitchen and the living room, praying to God and consoling her child. Her small children trailed her like lost puppies.

“Where’s Sissy?” they cried. “Is Sissy OK?”


About three miles southwest of Beverly Heights, children were still playing on the grass when the tornado blasted with bomb-like fury through the government projects at Rosedale. Filled with shingles and scrap metal, the meat grinder shredded half of the 50 brick buildings that were home to many families. The sky rained cinder blocks and babies.

It swept through Charleston Square, a two-story apartment complex built around an inner courtyard with a pool and a dozen trees. On the second floor, a sorority girl sat on her bathroom floor, studying for a test. As the walls around her vanished, she was thrown like a rag doll through the air, her spine shattering upon impact.

In a 1950s cottage in the Downs, a mother rushed her daughter into a bedroom closet, setting two pairs of shoes inside.

“Come on, sweetie! Time to do tornado turtle.”

As the walls began to buckle, Meredith Cummings lay over her little girl and searched her heart for the right thing to whisper, for words that would not haunt her daughter if they were her last.

Under the ancient oaks of historic Glendale Gardens, a white-haired woman sat in a chair in her closet, clutching a 94-year-old christening gown, the one she had worn as a baby. Her neighbors grabbed their wedding album and held each other in the bathtub. Down the street, a woman clung to her big, white dog.



Tuscaloosa firefighter Josh Pate looks for a missing child at the Rosedale Court housing complex. David Bundy / Associated Press


In the hallway of 31 Beverly Heights, Loryn sobbed into the phone.

“I’m scared, Mama! I’m scared!”

“It’s OK, baby,” her mother said gently. “It’s gonna be OK.”

On the phone, Ashley heard a boy in the background. “It’s OK,” the boy said. “It’s gonna be OK.”

Ashley did not know whose voice this was, but in it she could hear a boy who cared about her daughter. She also heard a slight catch, the sound of a young man trying not to sound afraid.


A mile and a half from Beverly Heights, the funnel was now a mile wide. The black vortex spun across paper-white sky, trailing tendrils of smaller funnels. It was so vast that, from a distance, it appeared to move in slow motion. But it was moving roughly a mile a minute, scouring its way through beautiful neighborhoods shaded by ancient trees.

In the hallway, side by side with Loryn and Will, Danielle was so afraid that she felt sick. In times of trouble, she leaned on her faith. Her Joan of Arc medal dangled from a silver chain around her neck. On the back of the medal, three words were stamped:

Pray for us.

Will kept telling the girls it was going to be OK, whether or not he believed it. Raised to be a gentleman, he had come to this house to look after the girls. He thought of his mother, fixing dinner at home in Priceville. It looked as if the power might be out for a while, and he knew she would worry. He sent her a quick text to let her know he was OK.

5:12 Will: This thing is huge. I’m fine



Daniel Mulder hugs his wife, Rachael, near their destroyed home in Tuscaloosa, Ala., three days after the storm hit. The couple survived by hiding in a tub. Dave Martin / Associated Press


Less than a mile south, at Fire Station 2, the rescuers stood outside on the apron, eyeing the sky. Their colleagues at Station 7, three miles away, were already taking shelter. Located on Paul W Bryant Drive a mile from Bryant-Denny Stadium and the grassy Quad, Station 2 was bigger, with nine men on duty. They had readied their chain saws and paramedic kits and were waiting, antsy, for trouble to arrive. Through the doors of the station, propped open in the wind, they could hear James Spann blaring in the station lounge, where a few of their colleagues sat watching.

“Hey! There’s a tornado down!” one of them yelled through the open doors to the men outside. “Y’all come in here and look — it’s on TV!”

“TV, hell!” said someone in the engine room. “There it is!”

They watched it cut diagonally through the middle of the city. Some filmed it with their camera phones, transfixed by its awesome magnitude. Each minute brought it one mile closer, and in the time it took to draw a breath, it seemed to swell impossibly. Lt. Marty McElroy looked up from his camera, saw the blue flash of transformers exploding and realized it was only four blocks away.

Oh, crap — It’s coming right at us!

“Hey, man,” McElroy yelled to no one in particular. “This thing’s fixin’ to get us!”

The firemen had made a pact to ride this thing out together in a place where the storm would take all or none. It had started as a joke — all for one and one for all — but in the end, they stuck to the plan. Pulling on helmets and turnout gear, they climbed into the heaviest vehicle of the fleet — Truck 32, the ladder truck — which they hoped was strong enough to survive a station collapse and heavy enough not to fly. The cab built for six was a tight squeeze for nine, and the men sat shoulder to shoulder in awkward silence.

Within seconds, the station began shaking, the doors of the engine bay rattling like an AK-47. Marty McElroy, an ex-marine who had been to war, was not afraid to die. What scared him was not dying but leaving behind a wife and two preteen daughters. Am I gonna see my girls again? Do they know I love them? Who’s gonna take care of them after I’m gone?

“Hey, guys ...”

It was Derek Riddle, the guy they always counted on to break the tension with a joke. Things were getting real, and they could use a good laugh to shake them out of this spell. The men waited for the punch line.

“Man, I love y’all,” Riddle said gravely. “If something happens ... you know I love you. And it’s been good.”

Silence.

“Shut up, Riddle,” someone said. They laughed.

And then they felt their ears pop.


About the author

Kim Cross is a contributing editor for Southern Living and a feature writer who has received awards from the Society of Professional Journalists, the Society of American Travel Writers and the Media industry Newsletter. Her writing has appeared in Outside, Cooking Light, Bicycling, Runner’s World, The Tampa Bay Times, The Birmingham News, The Anniston Star, USA Today, The New Orleans Times-Picayne and CNN.com. She lives in Alabama. Learn more at kimcross.com.

In Beverly Heights, the whipping trees swayed like reeds in a pond thrashed by the wakes of passing boats. In the dim hallway, Danielle, Loryn and Will burrowed deeper under the blankets. The silence was broken now by flying objects pecking at the windows, branches crackling and popping like fireworks in the whistling rush of wind. Ancient trunks groaned in protest; naked boughs whipped violently, plucked bare by the inhalation. The atmosphere accelerated around them, singing the terrible truths of fate.

Surrounded by pillows, blankets and friends, Loryn held the phone to her ear. Her pretty hazel eyes were red from crying. Her mother’s voice rose with panic.

“Oh my God, baby, it’s coming right toward you!” Ashley said. “Get your head down! Get your pillows over your head — it’s coming toward you!”

“I’m scared, Mama! I’m scared!”

“It’s OK, baby. It’s going to be OK. Just get your head down.” Every time Ashley Mims said it, she heard the boy say it, too. “It’s OK,” Will said, Loryn’s hand in his. “It’s gonna be OK.”

Ashley heard her daughter’s voice once more, muffled by a pillow. “Mama, I’m scared!”

Click.

The line went dead. Ashley’s heart convulsed with terror. At that moment, in the heart of the crucible, Danielle’s phone lit up with a text from her younger sister:

5:13 Michelle: is it on the ground? That is very scary! I hope it just passes ... i love you!


Epilogue

In 2011, between April 26 and April 28, 349 tornadoes touched down, wreaking devastation across 21 states from Texas to New York. At least 324 people were killed. This book excerpt is from chapter 17 from “What Stands in a Storm” by Kim Cross. Copyright © 2015 by Kim Cross. Reprinted by permission of Atria Books, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

You'll find more of our Personal Journeys at myAJC.com/personaljourneys.