Deadly storm system smashes east Alabama; residents spared

tstevens@ledger-enquirer.com; chwilliams@ledger-enquirer.comApril 28, 2014 

— Just before 5 a.m. EDT Tuesday morning, Lillian Baker was awakened by a phone call from her daughter.

“She said the tornado is going to hit Crawford, go downstairs in the basement,” Baker said Tuesday morning, hours after the storm tore the roof off her home and destroyed 14 mobile homes on her property.

She grabbed her two grandchildren — ages 15 and 4 — and ran to the bottom floor of the split-level brick home on Ala. 169, just two miles north of Crawford inside the Lee County line.

“We covered our heads and there was this blasting sound and the roof was gone,” said Baker, a former superintendent of the Russell County School District. “There was glass and windows popping. We just prayed that God would spare our lives. He did.”

Baker’s home was one of dozens damaged or destroyed in what the National Weather Service is calling a “likely tornado” that carved a nearly half-mile wide, 10-mile-long path through Russell and Lee counties in the predawn hours. The storm system that hit the Crawford area was responsible for more than 30 deaths as it worked its way across the South.

Baker and her grandchildren were trapped inside her home for about 30 minutes before her nephew arrived and pulled them out of the home.

Baker’s two-acre property sits in a little dip off Highway 169 that’s about six feet below the grade of the road. The trailers surrounded the home to the back and on one side.

Michael Overby, who lives on Lee Road 2103 about a mile from where the trailer park was demolished, has no doubt it was a tornado.

“Oh, it was a tornado, especially after seeing what it did to that trailer park up on 169,” he said.

He watched the start of it from his back door before seeking shelter in a closet.

“I was watching the trees snap, the trampoline flipped and I decided it was time to go,” he said.

Path of destruction

The storm tore a path of destruction beginning in Russell County near Flournoy Road, then worked its way into the Haley Woods subdivision off the west side of Highway 169 before jumping 169 and going down Dan Johnson Road, across Auburn Road and heading toward Smiths Station.

There were no serious injuries, for which Lee County Sheriff Jay Jones was thankful.

“The best thing — if you can find something good in this — is the injuries appear to be very minor and there were no fatalities,” Jones said around noon as law enforcement and rescue workers from multiple agencies across county lines worked the scene.

“If you look at the damage, the debris and the way some of the homes were destroyed, it is truly amazing that no one was hurt.”

Much of most serious damage was on Baker’s property, which was about a quarter mile from County Line Road, which divides Lee and Russell counties. Jones estimates that 50 homes in Lee County were damaged or destroyed.

Russell County Sheriff Heath Taylor surveyed the damage, and like Jones, was amazed.

“You have 15 or 20 residences in that area and they are all gone,” Taylor said. “The amazing thing is that there were no serious injuries because there were people in almost every home.”

Taylor said it could have been worse if the likely tornado had hit closer to U.S. 80, which was about 2 miles to the south.

“As you get closer to 80, it is a lot more populated,” Taylor said.

By noon, American Red Cross representatives were distributing hot dogs, hamburgers and water to area families. At least 11 families filled out paperwork for financial assistance, carrying family pets and small satchels of salvaged baby clothes.

An official said volunteers were still waiting for the national organization to clear funding for families in need.

“Anyone who needs food or a place to rest can come here. We’ve set up across from the mobile home park for the residents,” representative Joycelyn Carrell said. “Shelter is being offered at Crawford Baptist Church, as well as food and restrooms.”

Stories of survival

Those on the Baker property weren’t the only ones with stories of survival.

Kayla Holcey was terrified that her 8-month-old son Kristian Hampton had been killed until she head his screams under the rubble. After the baby was rescued, medical personnel transported the family to an area hospital for treatment of minor wounds.

“Her husband’s arm was broken, and her children were hit by glass, so that had to be removed by the hospital,” Carrell said. “When you have glass in your skin, that has to be removed by the hospital to make sure it’s not embedded in a major artery.”

After she was released from treatment, Holcey wandered the mobile home park, a medical bracelet still on her arm. She explored her glass shard and splintered wood-covered neighborhood, feet housed only in plastic shoe covers.

With a neighbor’s help, Salem resident Betty White dug her way out of her Lee County Road 205 home. The storm trapped White inside shortly after 5 a.m., demolishing her three-car garage and cracking her roof in the process. She exited her home to find twisted metal and broken flower pots littering her yard.

“We didn’t hear anything — no sirens, nothing — until after it hit,” White said. “I was awakened by the thunder. By the time we realized what was happening, it was too late. We didn’t even have time to get in the bathtub.”

Though much of White’s property was destroyed, she considers herself lucky. No one was injured — not even the horse once housed in the storm-leveled barn.

That realization sank in after Liberty Tomblin, White’s 5-year-old grand daughter, called to check up on her.

“She called me first thing and said, ‘Grandma, the most important thing is you aren’t hurt,’” White said. “We were spared the worst of it. The Lord has blessed us.”

Just before 5 a.m., Kelly Martin’s husband roused her, shouting that they had to take cover. Then she heard the roaring winds.

“The whole house was shaking, and you could hear it. It sounds just like they say it does — like a train,” said Martin, a Lee County Road 179 resident. “My husband snatched us into the bathtub. My 6-year-old boy was throwing up, he was so scared.”

Some shelters and a trampoline were left mangled by the winds, but Martin’s house remained untouched.

“It was terrifying,” she said. “But it could have been much worse.”

Trailer park leveled

In minutes, Angel Stubbs watched her neighborhood turn to debris. The mobile home park on Lillian Baker’s property has been 42-year-old Stubbs’ home since she was born. Her mother lives in the mobile home park, along with several cousins.

“Never, ever in all the years I’ve been here have we seen a tornado,” Stubbs said. “I never thought this would happen to us.”

Stubbs’ mother flashed into her mind when the first sirens sounded at about 4:40 a.m. As she rushed into her mother’s home, the wind ripped the roof away.

“I barely got one foot in the bathtub when the tornado was on top of us,” Stubbs said. “I was pulling my mother down on top of me and I could hear my son screaming my name, but I couldn't answer him. Then he found us and fell on top of us.”

A cousin rescued the family some time later, digging them out of the rubble. He found them huddled in the bathtub. That memory is faint for Stubbs, who says she more strongly recalls the forceful winds rocking the bathtub.

“All I remember is trying to get to my son, to hold on to my mother,” she said. “Next thing I know, my cousin’s pulling me out.”

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