The tornado continued to barrel from the southwestern corner of town to the northeast, moving just below the university and missing Tuscaloosa's main hospital.
In the middle-class neighborhood of Cedar Crest, it had been a normal day. Crowds dined at Chipotle and browsed at the Barnes & Noble. Many parents were at work, and university upperclassmen who rent some of the cheaper homes were holed up studying for next week's finals.
Stuart Mitchell, 23, a junior, was lying in bed, watching TV news and taking a break from his statistics homework. Two of his roommates were also home. He heard the tornado report but thought they said it was south of town.
"I didn't think much of it," Mitchell said.
They had to be OK, the roommates joked: These things always seemed to hit the trailer parks. Mitchell called dibs on the closet in the middle of the house, the one without windows. They had a good laugh.
Soon, Mitchell said, he started to hear "this weird, strange roaring sound."
"That's when I was like, 'Dude, something's wrong.' "
A roommate went outside and saw it bearing down. The three of them followed Mitchell's plan and jumped into the closet, bracing the doors with a sofa.
They heard shattering glass. One of the double closet doors blew off and they could see debris rushing like a river through the hallway. When they emerged, they discovered that the massive brick fireplace and chimney in Mitchell's room had fallen onto his bed, crushing it.
"If we didn't jokingly discuss this beforehand, we probably wouldn't have made it," he said.
The storm blew toward the Alberta City neighborhood on the east, a leafy, racially mixed, middle-class part of town dotted with older wood-framed bungalows.
Inside a one-story duplex on 13th Street East, Oscar Fulgham was watching tornado warnings on TV with his mother-in-law, Jerie Brown, when the screen went blank.
Unlike Mitchell, Fulgham, 69, a retired Army staff sergeant, had planned in earnest to take shelter in the bathroom if the winds picked up.
"We had plenty of warning, yeah, but you can't believe how fast that thing was moving," Fulgham said. "The sky turned black, and then it was on us before we had time to think."
Fulgham took a few quick steps to the bathroom, but his mother-in-law refused to join him. She wanted to stay in the living room so that she could look out the window and watch for her 7-year-old granddaughter. The girl was at a relative's house down the street, and Brown feared she would run home as the storm approached.
The tornado ripped into the house. Brown dove behind a love seat and held on to it. The ceiling crashed down on her. The windows exploded and the walls collapsed. Furniture flew into the yard.
lt took just six seconds to level the duplex.
Brown tried to stand up. Glass had sliced into her right foot and left shin. She was treated at a hospital and released.
"I can't get it out of my mind, how sudden it was," she said.
"And just like that, it was over -- and we were still alive."
Still on the bathroom floor, Fulgham checked himself for injuries. He was fine. He looked up. He could see the sky.
"And you know what? It was a bright sky," he said. "Everything was still."
He looked to the northeast for a trace of the storm, but it had vanished.