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After tornado, school takes in devastation

Enterprise, Ala., mourns 8 students, and marvels that the midday storm didn't kill more.

March 03, 2007|Jenny Jarvie | Times Staff Writer

ENTERPRISE, ALA. — As Enterprise High School's football field swarmed with Black Hawk helicopters and armed National Guard soldiers Friday, Ben Powell thought of the last time he saw Katie Strunk.

"We were sitting in history," the 10th-grader said. "She was smiling. She always smiled."

Ben had a crush on Katie, who was among eight students who died at their school Thursday when a tornado slammed into the main building, ripping off concrete roofs and flattening cinder-block walls.

Administrators were warned about severe weather nearly three hours before the tornado hit Enterprise, a city of about 23,000 about 75 miles south of Montgomery. At 1:15 p.m., about 1,200 students were lined up in the interior halls, where they had been waiting to be sent home. But that plan was scrapped because of the deteriorating weather.

In addition to those killed, scores of students were injured as glass, bricks, books and computers whirled about the school corridors.

"Everyone was screaming, and there was blood everywhere," said sophomore Hailey Moore, 16, whose ribs were broken when a book hit her side. "I could feel the dirt and glass in my hair, and I just thought, 'Oh gosh. Is this really happening? Am I going to die?' "

School officials took some criticism for not having dismissed students earlier, but defended their decision as the best they could make at that time.

"I truly am amazed we didn't have more loss of life," Alabama Gov. Bob Riley said after touring the main building of the school. "I'm not going to second-guess. I think what the school did was exactly what I would have done."

On Friday, thousands of students, teachers, parents and neighbors gathered outside the city's only high school.

It was barely recognizable: The back of the main building was collapsed, the science hall was gone, and the welding room had been picked up and put on top of the gymnasium. At the outdoor stadium, the top of the bleachers had been ripped off and the goalpost twisted.

"It doesn't even look like our school," said Karana Brown, 18. "It's unbelievable to think we got out of that building."

Many students and parents said the carnage would have been far worse if students had tried to leave school in the midst of the storm: Cars were upturned in parking lots, thick pine trees were snapped in half and entire roofs had blown off brick homes.

"If they had let us out, they'd be looking at more dead," said senior Charlie Strickland, 17, who was in the science wing when the tornado hit.

For some, Friday was a day to pay respects. Brown and her friend Matthew Bussett, 18, drove out to the country to spend time with the family of a choir friend who had died in the school. They sat in a living room with their friend's mother and sister, watching videos of the choir.

"It didn't feel like he died until we stepped in his house," Bussett said. "Then it felt like he had gone."

Amberlee Henderson, 17, a junior whose cousin A.J. Jackson died in the tornado, walked around the back of the school building with her friend Katie Fitzgerald, struggling to process what had happened.

"Everything feels unreal," she said. "Everyone is in a phase where we don't know what's going on."

Joseph Morton, the state's superintendent of education, said the tornado was probably the worst that had hit an Alabama school in living memory.

"We've had tornadoes before, but not with this loss of life," he said.

"But looking at the building, it's a miracle that 2,000 were saved."

After a period of mourning, the students of Enterprise High School will be taught in portable classrooms, at community colleges and through long-distance education programs, he said.

In addition to the dead in Enterprise, at least 12 others were killed by tornadoes elsewhere in Alabama and in Georgia and Missouri. Today, President Bush plans to tour some of the damaged areas.

jenny.jarvie@latimes.com

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