Alabama tornado aftermath: Crimson Tide athletes, coaches, officials help clean up, console devastated community

Special to the Ledger-EnquirerMay 1, 2011 

TUSCALOOSA, Ala.

It was Day 3, and the shock was gone on 5th Street Northeast.

The reality was all too brutal, and there was little to do but count blessings, scarred belongings and plan the next stage. It was just one street on the fringe of tornado-battered Tuscaloosa, far from the television cameras and international media gathered near the University of Alabama.

But the barely recognizable street in the community of Holt was no less surreal three days after the historic twister reduced it to splinters.

Helicopters buzzed overhead as chainsaws cut through unforgiving tree limbs covering the houses that still resembled homes. It smelled rotten, and airborne insulation made surgical masks a necessity.

Just after 10 on a cruelly beautiful Saturday morning, a convoy of pickup trucks left the Coleman Coliseum parking lot, bound for 5th Street. A few dozen Alabama student-athletes, coaches and a few thousand bottles of donated water left the quiet calm and headed straight for the war zone just 5 miles away.

Basketball coach Anthony Grant ducked into the backseat of a white pickup with a hat, sunglasses and casual clothes, nearly concealing his identity. Saturday, he wasn’t the coach with a multimillion dollar contract; he was one of the volunteers trying to help those less fortunate.

Walking east on 5th Street, the damage went from ugly to unspeakable. The number of dead was still unknown in the section of Tuscaloosa where the death toll stood at 39 as of Saturday evening, The Tuscaloosa News reported.

There were roofs on the first few ranch-style houses in the blue-collar neighborhood.

Harris Wallace had just his hallway closet. There, huddled with his wife, Irene, the 76-year old survived Wednesday’s EF4 twister. Everything else -- gone.

Looking at the scattered mess that was his home, Wallace threw a curve ball when describing the scene late Saturday morning.

“It feels like paradise,” he said as a handful from the UA delegation salvaged what they could.

There was even more rubble Wednesday afternoon when he dug his way through the pile.

“It was like a bomb went off,” he said. “The first thing I heard after that were the windows breaking. Then after that, that brick started rocking like this here. Then I hear the cement popping, and, about that time, it covered us up. Quite an experience.”

4304 5th St. is no more

Just a few houses west, Teresa Junkin had the outside walls and the battered insides of her family’s home. Still, she couldn’t stop smiling.

“When the fella came up and said he had some athletes and to hear they’re here to help, I will look at circumstances so differently now,” she said with her 10-year old daughter, Madison, at her side. “When times like this arise, I’ll be the ones like them.”

Then she went back inside to clean up the kitchen as former basketball player and current staff member Antoine Pettway made his way down the hallway. There, he found beds, drawers full of clothing and the closet that saved the Junkin family.

Teresa’s husband, Barry, had a death grip on the door when it blew open. The pull-down stairs that fell from above kept it from swinging all the way.

“You could feel us being pulled apart, and this one was closest to the wall,” Teresa said, nodding at Madison. “I was losing her. I started crying, saying, ‘I’m losing my baby, I’m losing my baby.’ My son’s girlfriend had a hold of her. I had a hold to her. Barry grabs her. She was the one being pulled from us. That was probably the scariest part.”

The images of children lost haunted most of the day on 5th Street and those surrounding Saturday. Senior associate athletics director and CFO Finus Gaston was shaken when he found a child’s shoe in the pulverized remains of a mobile home a few blocks from the Junkin and Wallace homes. He later discovered children’s clothing and toys and no sight of their owner.

Assistant athletics trainer John Morr -- one of the organizers of Saturday’s efforts -- pulled out his iPhone to illustrate the moment recovery efforts got emotional. Again, a lone and unoccupied shoe of a child appeared in a gutter surrounded by garbage. It looked like the same size Morr’s 3-year-old daughter wears.

The efforts in the Holt neighborhood extended well beyond the UA athletics delegation. Church groups and volunteer of all walks of life offered food, water and chainsaw repairs all morning and well into the afternoon.

A few representatives from a UA rival also joined the effort. Mississippi State athletics training staff members Mary McLendon and Justin Gremillion drove in from Starkville on Saturday morning.

Taking a break on 5th Street, Gremillion compared the scene to the one he witnessed six years earlier when he was a grad assistant at LSU.

“I’ve been through Katrina when I was in Baton Rouge, and this is just something totally different,” he said. “People just lose everything here. Everything.”

Gremillion spent most of his day with Alabama walk-on football player Sam Kearns.

He spent the previous two days volunteering in the destroyed neighborhoods closer to campus. That included a walk down the street where teammate Carson Tinker was hospitalized after being thrown from his house and his girlfriend was killed.

“We saw his place the other day,” he said. “Actually, I don’t think it was actually his house because somebody said his house is completely gone. It might have been his neighbors. It’s a miracle anybody made it through any of that stuff.”

The clean-up effort in Tuscaloosa gained organization by Saturday morning, following a few chaotic days. There was no shortage of help. They just needed a few lead dogs.

So for the UA athletics department, the training staff was handed the baton.

By 3 p.m., work was starting to wind down, and volunteer numbers started falling. But the group from the Alabama athletics department had one final act of kindness left.

Standing atop a ladder, Grant helped reach into what was an attic across the street from the Wallaces on 5th Street. He didn’t want the collection of cheerleading and pageant trophies from the 1970s and 80s to land in a scrap heap. The typically stoic Grant even joked with the owners about the box of ribbons and sashes found next to the hardware.

“Anytime I think you can share a laugh and share memories,” Grant said, “it’s just good to hear people talk, --and maybe, for a brief moment, forget about what we lost.”

For Harris Wallace, Teresa Junkin, and their 5th Street neighbors, the focus was more on what was gained.

Somehow they were alive.

Property was beyond destroyed. Big deal, the consensus said.

Saturday was the third day of sunshine after the storm and that one street on the outskirts of Tuscaloosa was already moving on.

They tossed what remained in trucks and left the rest behind. And when the caravan of pickups turned back for campus, the tired, sun burnt faces couldn’t mask a sense of accomplishment.

“They’re so happy that they’re getting help, but they’re actually blessing us,” Morr said. “The gratitude that they have is unmistakable. We feel helpless when all this went down. We’re trying to do the little we can. That’s what we’re trained to do.

“Just help. It’s what we do.”

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