FULTONDALE, Ala. (AP) — A teenager sheltering in his basement was killed and several family members were critically injured when a tornado blew a tree onto their Alabama home, police said Tuesday.
Many others narrowly escaped with their lives. At least 30 people were injured as the twister carved a 10-mile (16 kilometer) path of destruction Monday night in the northern suburbs of Birmingham, an area severely damaged by a much larger tornado a decade ago.
“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 Tim Herring, who said he and his wife Patti had just moments to prepare.
“I had to push a bunch of boards off of me and some sheetrock. 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.
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. One car landed upside down against tree branches on a large pile of debris.
The teen 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 14-year-old killed was in the ninth grade, according to Jefferson County Schools Superintendent Walter Gonsoulin.
Search and rescue efforts continued 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 buildings and children’s toys and clothing were scattered across the hilly terrain littered with broken trees. Utility lines had fallen on roads. Some houses had entire roofs missing. The sound of chainsaws sliced through the air and a helicopter circled overhead.
Patti Herring was shaken and teary as she picked through the debris looking for a missing cat and her late mother’s cherished belongings.
Across the street from the Herrings, the tornado destroyed the home of the Williams family, and even damaged part of the basement tornado shelter where Jason Williams rode out the storm with his wife and two teen daughters. He said he woke them up after hearing the tornado siren and they felt their ears pop from the pressure change as they rushed inside.
“As soon as we got in there it hit, and it all came down on top of us,” Williams said. The family was trapped for about 20 minutes until neighbors helped free them, surviving with only bumps and bruises. “Other than that, God had his mighty hands on us.”
A broken pipe spewed water into the air Tuesday morning as Williams and some volunteers helped free their dog Smokey from the remains of the basement where the animal had been trapped. He climbed down a ladder and was able to hoist the dog to safety.
“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.
Police blocked intersections leading to the hardest hit areas of Fultondale, a suburb that’s home to about 9,000 people. Downed power lines and debris closed part of Interstate 65 while workers removed the obstacles, said James Coker, the director of the Jefferson County Emergency Management Agency. A Hampton Inn hotel also sustained significant structural damage.
“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!”
Weather service crews made a preliminary finding that Monday night’s tornado was at least a high EF-2 with 135 mph (217 k/ph) winds but emphasized that surveys were ongoing.
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.
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