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Tornado slams Alabama school, killing at least 5

Violent storms sweep Midwest and Southern states, devastating Enterprise High School in the middle of the day.

March 02, 2007|Jenny Jarvie and Nicholas Riccardi | Times Staff Writers

ENTERPRISE, ALA. — A tornado pulverized a high school in southern Alabama on Thursday, toppling the roof and killing at least five people as students sought shelter in the hallways.

With power still out in most of the city of 21,000, shaken officials in Enterprise called a brief news conference Thursday night to announce a dawn-to-dusk curfew and plead with residents to stay off the streets so rescue vehicles could easily get to the ruins of Enterprise High School.

"We need your prayers," said Bob Phares, assistant superintendent of the school district. "We do not yet know the full extent of the student or school personnel injured."

A row of vacant yellow buses was still lined up in front of the high school, doors open as if waiting for students who never left. Neighboring brick houses sat with their roofs torn off.

The floor of the school was coated with shattered glass, and the athletic field littered with debris and water bottles.

At City Hall, a group of parents gathered, hoping for news about their children. Ludie Wilson, 40, rocked silently back and forth in a plastic chair, clutching a tissue, as she waited to find out what had happened to her daughter, Michelle, a sophomore.

"She's just given up," said Wilson's mother, Sherry Picking, 60, rubbing her back. "She's sure something bad happened."

The storm system that tore apart Enterprise also struck elsewhere in Alabama and in Missouri, killing at least three others, including a 7-year-old girl in Missouri.

In Enterprise, at least 50 people were rushed to the medical center with such injuries as broken arms and ruptured spleens, spokeswoman Toni Kaminiski said. "This is the first time we've experienced something like this," she said.

Alabama Gov. Bob Riley declared a state of emergency, making public agencies eligible for help from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and opening shelters across the state.

He dispatched 100 National Guard troops to the region to help recover victims. "I am committed to providing all of our residents with any assistance they may need," he said.

President Bush was briefed about the tornado damage by senior staff aboard Air Force One while returning to Washington from a visit to New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. He phoned the governors of Alabama and Missouri to extend his condolences for the deaths in those states.

The 1,200 students at Enterprise High School were told at 10:30 a.m. that a tornado might be headed their way and they would be dismissed at 1 p.m. They thought it was just a drill, said junior Brooke Schroades, 16. She called her father, Michael, and asked him to pick her up.

A few minutes before 1, with parents' cars snaking around the block, the storm bore down on the school. Police yelled for parents to run indoors.

Brooke, who was still in the choir room at the time, said: "I heard the thunder that sounded like a train, and I knew the tornado was on us."

Three teachers hustled the students into a closet, then flung themselves over their pupils. Seconds later there was quiet, and the students emerged to find their school flattened. Students had gathered in hallways for shelter when the roof in one collapsed. Authorities said students were trapped under the debris for hours.

"It's total damage," Brooke said. "There's hardly anything left."

Cars had been flung about the parking lot and streets. Brooke and her father couldn't find each other for more than an hour, and when the two tracked down his Chevy Trailblazer, they found the driver's seat littered with shingles turned into potentially deadly missiles by the winds.

Brooke spent the evening at the hospital, waiting to hear whether three missing friends had survived. "Everybody's just trying to hang on," she said.

Jarvie reported from Enterprise and Riccardi from Denver.

Times staff writer Maura Reynolds contributed to this report.

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