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Survivors tell tales of horror

Tuscaloosa residents huddled in closets as homes disintegrated. 'It was on us before we had time to think.'

April 30, 2011|Richard Fausset and David Zucchino

TUSCALOOSA, ALA. — After hearing vague warnings all day, Constance Foster finally heard a report of an honest-to-God tornado.

The TV news said it was on Greensboro Avenue, a block west of Foster's little two-bedroom brick home in the Rosedale Court housing project.

"Me being sarcastic, I said, 'Well, if it's on Greensboro I should be able to see it,' " Foster, 45, recalled.

She opened the door and saw two twisters, one bigger than the other. Almost instantly, they combined, and the new behemoth grew exponentially, kicking up a cloud of debris and blackening the western sky.

"It opened like the mouth of hell," she said.

In about five minutes, the tornado would rip a deadly -mile gash through the heart of this southern college town. It spared the University of Alabama, the iconic football stadium and the museum dedicated to coach Paul W. "Bear" Bryant. Instead, it would punish neighborhoods, visiting misery and destruction not only on students, but a diverse swath of Tuscaloosa residents, including professors, professionals and the poor.

The most any of them could know beforehand Wednesday was that that tornadoes might form. They could not know exactly where, or when.

Tommy Dockery may have been among the first to see it. Dockery, an emergency preparedness official with the state public health department, was with a dozen or so other emergency personnel in the steel-and-concrete fortified basement of the Curry Building, a massive, hangar-like structure in the southwestern corner of town that housed much of Tuscaloosa's emergency response equipment and personnel.

The crew had retreated to the bunker as it always did during bad storms, tracking them with video cameras and radar, and issuing warnings around the area.

They knew, given the hundreds of tornadoes that had formed in recent weeks in the heartland, that today could be particularly bad.

About 5 p.m., one of their cameras near the Interstate caught the massive twister. But where, exactly, would it go?

Two minutes later, an answer: a massive, asphyxiating boom. The power went out. Dockery realized it was on top of them.

"The whole building came crashing down on top of us," he said.

The crew used axes and picks and crowbars to dig themselves out. In the meantime, they could not know where it was headed next. Their radar and video screens were dark.

The neighborhood across the freeway was dominated by Rosedale Court, a maze of one-story brick housing projects. It was the kind of place the government deemed a social failure: The county was planning to tear it down in the fall to make way for mixed-income housing. Signs around the place declared "NO LOITERING."

To residents, hanging out with friends and family had always been one of the enduring pleasures of life in Rosedale Court. On Wednesday, there were more people than usual. Kids were home from school because storms the night before had knocked out power to many parts of town, including homes across the street. Without TV or air conditioning, many of the residents moved outside.

Children were running happily in and out of one another's houses. The adults were not so carefree.

Foster's brother, Michael Hawkins, a 53-year-old disabled veteran, was one of those without power, relying on car radios and word of mouth for weather updates. In the early afternoon, the city storm sirens went off, and police rolled through the neighborhoods warning of potential bad weather.

Hawkins knew it was serious. But what could he do? No one knew where a tornado might emerge. This place was, in theory, as safe as the swankiest part of town.

At about 4 p.m., he watched with concern as dark clouds gathered in the west and began rolling toward town. The rain fell, but not too heavily.

And then, in a matter of seconds, it appeared. Hawkins ran through his house, past shaking walls adorned with photos of his family, and dove into the bathroom.

Back in the project, the tornado was screaming toward Foster so fast that she didn't have time to close her door.

The granddaughter she had raised from birth, a cherub-faced 11-year-old named Alaysia Witherspoon, watched in wonder and horror through a window as a red truck flew through the air.

Foster grabbed the girl. They stuffed themselves into Alaysia's closet among her clothes and shoes. Foster held the child snug in the crook of her left arm. Her right hand gripped the closet's doorknob.

The monster was upon them. The wind pulled the door so hard that Foster thinks she dislocated a finger. It sounded, she said, like eight engines. The girl cried, "Mama, don't let it get us."

Foster said, "Keep praying, 'Laysia."

Seconds later, she was telling her child not to move. They were buried in a pile of brick and wood. Foster didn't want Alaysia to dislodge anything else. They cried for help.

Her brother had been buried too, but not as badly. Hawkins dusted himself off and ran out to find his neighbors and family.

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