A terrifying nighttime tornado that blasted through suburban Birmingham, trapping entire families in the remnants of shattered homes and killing a teenager sheltering in his basement, left a trail of destruction Tuesday that stunned even longtime residents used to Alabama's violent weather.
Tim Herring, who survived the twister by huddling in a bathtub with wife Patti Herring as roaring winds ripped off the roof of their house and splintered walls, had followed weather forecasts during the day and didn't expect the worst until it happened late Monday.
“I've lived here 64 years. I wasn't too worried,” he said. Herring added: “I've helped folks after tornadoes. This time, it's us.”
Across the road, Jason Williams struggled to explain how he, his wife Renee and their two daughters made it out alive after their home collapsed, trapping them in the basement shelter where they'd sought refuge.
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“God had his mighty hand on us. That's all I can say. God protected us last night,” said Williams, who had a cut on his forehead and bruises on his legs but was otherwise OK.
Many others narrowly escaped with their lives. At least 30 people were injured as the tornado carved a 10-mile (16 kilometer) path through Birmingham's northern suburbs, an area severely damaged by a much larger tornado a decade ago.
On one road after another, pieces of buildings, furniture, appliances and trees were strewn about and vehicles came to rest in awkward positions, as if a child had scattered a collection of Matchbox cars.
The teen killed in the storm was pronounced dead at the scene Tuesday morning, and several of his family members were critically injured when their home collapsed, trapping them in the basement, Fultondale Police Chief D.P. Smith said.
“They were doing what they were supposed to be doing,’′ the chief said. The teen was identified as Elliott Hernandez, according to the Jefferson County coroner's office. The 14-year-old was in the ninth grade, according to Jefferson County Schools Superintendent Walter Gonsoulin.
Search and rescue efforts continued for hours in neighborhoods where it was difficult to tell where houses had stood. Across the wrecked landscape, every visible structure was damaged or destroyed. Pieces of children’s toys and clothing were scattered across the hilly terrain littered with broken trees. Fallen utility lines crisscrossed roads.
The sound of chainsaws sliced through the air and sheriff's deputies kept away onlookers at checkpoints throughout Fultondale, with about 9,000 residents about 10 miles north of Birmingham.
Herring already had gotten ready for bed when a warning siren went off and a TV forecaster said the storm was headed toward their home. He said he put on some pants and began looking for his wife's two cats when they realized they were out of time.
“We ran in the bathroom, got down in the tub and covered over with some towels and then in about two minutes it was all over,” said Herring.
The couple was covered with boards and pieces of walls afterward, but neither was seriously hurt. "We got out and my wife said, ‘We don’t have a roof.’ I walked in the hallway and said, ‘We ain’t got no walls either.’ I said, ‘We’re lucky to be alive, Patti,’” Tim Herring said.
Sobbing, Patti Herring was shaken and as she picked through the debris looking for a missing cat and her late mother's cherished belongings.
At what was left of Jason Williams' home nearby, he and some helpers celebrated a small victory amid the devastation: They rescued the family dog Smokey from where it was trapped by falling debris. The dog spent hours near what was left of the basement room where the four-member family sought refuge with no time to spare.
“As soon as we got in there it hit, and it all came down on top of us,” Williams said.
Saving the dog was no small thing for a family that lost everything else, he said.
“I’m just so proud that Smokey is OK. One of my daughters had some guinea pigs and the other one had a turtle. and I can't find them. I just found part of the guinea pig cage,” he said.
Fultondale Fire Chief Justin McKenzie said 18 of the 30 people injured had to go to hospital. Six others were pulled uninjured from damaged structures Tuesday morning.
The county's emergency management agency tweeted that several schools would be closed Tuesday for both traditional and remote students.
The school superintendent said the system is trying to determine how many students may be homeless now. Fultondale High School was so heavily damaged that he doubts students can return to classrooms this year.
“Every building on this campus had been touched,” Gonsoulin said. A hotel also was damaged near Interstate 65.
“The people of Fultondale took a hard hit last night — I’m grieved over the loss of life, injuries, homes & damaged businesses," Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey said on Twitter. “I offer my prayers & deepest sympathies & pledge the full support & resources our state has to offer. I am with you, Fultondale!”
The weather service said the twister was at least a strong EF-2 with 135 mph (217 kph) winds based on initial surveys, but storm assessments continued.
Fultondale also caught the tail end of an EF- 4 tornado that ripped across Alabama from Tuscaloosa to northern Jefferson County on April 27, 2011, killing 65 people and injuring 1,500 along a damage path more than 80 miles (130 kilometers) long, according to the National Weather Service.
“Sadly, here in Fultondale we are very experienced with this kind of thing,” fire chief McKenzie said.