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After tornado struck, Tuscaloosa newlyweds found 'everything was gone'

A young couple's home was ripped apart and their neighborhood devastated by Wednesday's violent storm. Unlike others, however, they were unhurt and 'between God, family and friends, we'll be OK.'

April 29, 2011|By Richard Fausset, Los Angeles Times
  • An aerial photo shows the devastation of an apartment complex in Tuscaloosa, Ala. The death toll from the string of tornadoes that struck the South on Wednesday was 270 Thursday afternoon and climbing.
An aerial photo shows the devastation of an apartment complex in Tuscaloosa,… (Dusty Compton / The Tuscaloosa…)

Reporting from Tuscaloosa, Ala. — Angela Kelso got off work early from her graphic design job and came home on Wednesday to her little off-white rental house in Cedar Crest, a neighborhood near the University of Alabama campus. It was around 3:30 p.m.

Her husband, Clayton Smith, 23, was just minutes away at his ROTC class on campus. Five days earlier, they had married. The modest three-bedroom was their first home together and it was packed with all of the spoils of their recent wedding: Tupperware, wine glasses, a fancy vacuum still in its box.

Angela, 22, had been watching news of the coming storm all day. But unless you know a tornado is imminent, what can you really do? Angela played in the yard with Allie, their pit bull mix, for a while. But soon it was apparent that something bad was headed her way.

PHOTO GALLERY: Tornadoes cut path of widespread devastation

"The power went out. There was no more TV," she said. "And I knew I was in trouble."

Her father-in-law called and told her to get into a safe place with some pillows. So she went to the hallway with Allie.

Then her mother called. She told Angela it was going to sound like a freight train passing right by her, that it would just last a moment.

She retreated to the tiny closet in the master bedroom, crouched low, with Allie in her arms, like a baby. The closet was so small she couldn't close the door all the way, but she pulled it as close as possible.

Then it came, just like her mother had told her, the roaring train with the wailing whistle. She could feel things falling around her. A few feet away, the floorboards were ripped open. The roof was torn off. The windows smashed out. In the front, the big magnolia tree, just about to flower, was stripped of every leaf, with nearly every branch broken off, as if deliberately and maliciously, at the points where they met the trunk.

"I prayed, 'Lord, keep me safe,' " she said. "I had my eyes closed and it felt like a dream."

She had been shielding her face with a pillow. When she looked up, the closet door had swung open. She saw clouds and a blue canvas above her. But she didn't see her bed. Thursday, she still hadn't found it.

She jumped out of a low picture window liberated of glass. "The best thing was seeing all of the people alive who were standing there," she said.

She called Clayton. "I said, 'Baby, everything's gone. I can see the sky. I'm OK. Allie's OK. But I need you.' "

He was able to park his car beside the hospital. He walked for blocks through the mess — trees fallen, the Chevron station twisted, the mattress store a filthy ruin.

The house was just walls and piles of brick, their belongings now junk. School textbooks and notebooks littered the floor. Everything was spattered with mud. For blocks it was the same.

They embraced and she told Clayton, "Baby, go help the others." He was a military policeman in the Army Reserves; in 2009 he'd been in Iraq. After graduating in August 2012 he'd make lieutenant.

The neighborhood was flooding with people and rescue workers. They would hear a shout and run toward it. Clayton went a few houses down, where three men and a woman, all of them young like him were lying in the rubble. One guy had a small cut. But the others were in worse shape. Clayton and the impromptu crew were worried about the woman, that perhaps she had hurt her back. Someone found some plywood. They loaded her on it and took her to the parking lot of a Hardee's. Someone put her in a pickup truck and took her to the hospital. It seemed she had broken her pelvis and her leg.

The second of the three men had broken ribs and both legs below his knees. The third man was dead.

After a while, they walked to a parking deck a few blocks away. For the first time, Angela said, "I saw the city of Tuscaloosa, and as far as I could see — left, right, and in front of me — everything was gone."

They spent the night at a relative's house but were back just after dawn on Thursday with a crew of friends, digging through the rubble. Clayton was wearing jeans and his desert boots with the dog tag hanging from the laces.

"I need to find a way to finish school next week," he said, pointing to the muddy, excavated lump that was his backpack.

But he knew it could have been worse.

"Angela was shook up last night," he said. "But we got married on Saturday. I'm very lucky she wasn't hurt. Between God, family and friends, we'll be OK."

Near the broken magnolia tree, they made a pile of what was worth salvaging: some clothes, a bottle of Crown Royal, a case of beer. And the wedding gifts: the wine glasses, the sheets and bowls, the fancy vacuum in its box, the Tupperware.

PHOTO GALLERY: Tornadoes cut path of widespread devastation

richard.fausset@latimes.com

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