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Tornadoes didn't spare the children

In Alabama's Tuscaloosa County, eight children are among the 40 dead. And some of those who survived are left shell-shocked by the tragedy.

May 01, 2011|By Kate Linthicum, Los Angeles Times
  • Dan Turner takes a moment to pray inside the demolished sancutary of Alberta Baptist Church in Tuscaloosa, Ala. The county lost eight children, ranging in age from 8 months to 15 years.
Dan Turner takes a moment to pray inside the demolished sancutary of Alberta… (Dave Martin, AP )

Reporting from Tuscaloosa, Ala. — Jaslyne Smith, just home from the hospital, sat stiffly on the couch, her mother by her side. Her neck had been broken when a ceiling collapsed during last week's monster tornado.

She had already been told that her aunt was killed when the tornado ripped into Rosedale Court, a sprawling complex of one-story brick apartments near downtown Tuscaloosa.

But now her mother, Margaret Smith, was saying the name of Jaslyne's niece.

Photo gallery: Tornadoes cut path of devastation

Jaslyne, who turned 18 on Sunday, struggled to speak through swollen lips:

"She dead too?"

"Yeah," her mother said. Christian McNeil was 15 months old.

On Sunday, officials released the names of the 40 people killed in Tuscaloosa County.

More women died than men, and eight were children, ranging in age from 8 months to 15 years. Several died at Rosedale Court.

Amid the wreckage of the nearly leveled low-income housing project lay baby strollers, picture books and a children's piano.

The apartment complex operated like an extended family, residents say. People watched out for each other, and for each other's children.

But Rosedale Court, with its history of gangs and drug dealing, was not an easy place to be young. Survival required toughness.

"You have to show who's hardest," said Aloxizo Parr, who lived there with his mother.

He's worried about how his younger neighbors will deal with the destruction. "I'm 47 years old … and I'm near about going to tears," he said. "It's gonna play out rough in some of their heads."

An added challenge is that many of the parents are little more than children themselves.

"They were kids with kids," said Larry Williams, who grew up in Rosedale and whose cousin fled the complex with his two young children just before the tornado hit.

Jaslyne Smith, her sister, Racquel, 23, and Racquel's three children had been visiting their aunt, Shena Hutchins, when the twister surprised them. Hutchins, 26, was killed, as was baby Christian, Racquel's daughter.

For two days, Jaslyne drifted in and out of sleep at a children's hospital in Birmingham. Her family decided not to tell her about Christian, fearing the news would upset her.

But now, in her mother's apartment in the low-income Hays Court complex, she learned the truth.

Jaslyne looked at a picture of her niece and tears rolled down her face.

"She didn't do nothing to nobody," Jaslyne said. Her uncle, Calvin Smith, held her hand.

"It's God's work, baby, something you can't explain," he said.

"It hurts," Jaslyne said.

"I know it hurts," he said. "But your uncle loves you, and we gonna go through it together."

Smith is dealing with his own loss. Hutchins was his newlywed wife.

They married two months ago and lived at Rosedale Court with Hutchins' two children, a 4-year-old girl and an 8-month-old boy.

Both children survived. But the 4-year-old won't eat and won't sleep. The only words she'll speak, Calvin Smith said, are, "Where's my mama?"

Some of the other children in the family were coping better. On Saturday evening, as family and friends stopped by Hays Court to drop off food and offer condolences, the children played outside with other neighborhood kids, jumping around an inflated plastic castle as several men grilled hamburgers and kept watch. Every yard was filled with families, and the sound of laughter and music spilled into the street.

It was the kind of thing, Calvin Smith said, that you might have seen at Rosedale Court.

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