In dark, `everybody was screaming'

Survivors recount chaos as tornado tore roof off Ala. school

March 03, 2007|By New York Times News Service

ENTERPRISE, Ala. --After the sudden pitch-black darkness, there was chaos, then screaming. And when that subsided, the still-jittery students of Enterprise High School recalled yesterday, young men and women they had grown up with were nowhere to be found, even as everyone else was climbing shakily to their feet.

Eight students were killed Thursday afternoon, victims of a powerful tornado that tore apart their school soon after students were told to hit the floor. Concrete from a collapsed interior wall rained down on them, even as they huddled together for safety, authorities said. Officials defended their decision not to evacuate them sooner, saying the tornado warnings indicated that that would have been hazardous.

Yesterday, dazed survivors - teachers and students - recounted their luck as they toured the perimeter of the ruins, the shattered building's spilled-out insides visible even from the great distance at which authorities kept onlookers.

For suddenly grief-stricken parents such as the mother and father of Andrew J. Jackson, a sturdy 16-year-old weightlifter, there was no consolation.

"We lost a good man yesterday," said Andrew's father, Tim Jackson, his lip trembling as he stood in the family carport. He said witnesses had told them of their son's last moments: Andrew held up a falling concrete beam long enough for another student to escape, then was crushed by it.

The tornado here was only the sharpest shard in a deadly volley of storms that produced at least 31 tornadoes and battered the nation's midsection Thursday from Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico, killing 10 in Alabama, nine in Georgia and one in Missouri, a 7-year-old girl. In Georgia, six of those killed were residents of a trailer park in Newton, and at least two died in Sumter, Ga.

"I actually thought that this was the end, that, like, I was about to be taken away from Earth," said Antoine Perry, 31, in Newton, who watched as the side of a house was sheared off.

Grief hung heavy over Enterprise, a military-dominated town of 23,000 adjacent to Fort Rucker, just above the Florida Panhandle. It seemed as if everyone's son or daughter, or nephew or grandchild, had been through hell the day before, and everybody had a story to tell. The search for bodies continued until after 1 a.m. yesterday.

"You don't expect to take a child to school, then go back and pull him out of the rubble," said Maxie Searcy, of Searcy's Funeral Home, where relatives of some of the victims were headed.

There was too much grief just yet for any criticism of school officials for failing to clear the school before the tornado hit at 1:15, despite hours of weather warnings. Some parents had pulled students out anyway, a few suggested yesterday. But others had not, and when the tornado hit, "they were sitting on the floor in the fetal position, kind of up against the wall," said Dave Sutton, the Coffee County sheriff.

The interior halls had been considered the safest place in the school, but one of the interior walls collapsed, "and a lot of concrete came down on them," the sheriff said.

Like other officials here, the sheriff lauded the local response and said the school's disaster plan had been implemented properly. Gov. Bob Riley descended into the ruins on a helicopter yesterday morning, praised the military and local officials, and spoke of the outpouring for the bereaved from across the country.

"This country is praying for them," the governor said. In Washington, President Bush said he planned to visit the area today.

"Looking back, we would not have evacuated any sooner," said Assistant Superintendent Bob Phares. "There was one warning after another, after 10:30 a.m. We didn't want to send the students out in the middle of a tornado."

In the end, the tornado came to get them anyway.

"It was like hell, it was so dark," said Kevin Smith, an 11th-grader. "I heard people screaming. Everybody was very, very scared." He glanced over and saw a friend "completely covered in blood."

"I kept saying, `We're gonna be all right, we're gonna be all right,' and frankly not believing a word of it," said Jim McClellan, a special education teacher.

Many spoke of the extraordinary brevity of the event. "I pretty much watched it lift the roof of houses across the street, and then I saw it lift cars in the air," said Josh Beene, A.J. Jackson's cousin. "Then I pretty much tucked my head under and protected myself. Then, in five seconds, it was over, and the roof was gone, and the lights were hanging from the ceiling. And everybody was screaming."

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