TUSCALOOSA, Ala. (WIAT) — It’s been three years since a tornado ripped through the city of Tuscaloosa on April 27, 2011, killing more than 50 people and injuring many others.
The memories of that day are still as vivid as they ever were for me. It started out like a typical warm, spring day at the University of Alabama. Thunderstorms had passed through in the morning and eventually gave way to extremely humid conditions.
By mid-day, it was evident that there was a chance for significant weather across much of Alabama. After a meeting on campus, I returned home to watch storm coverage with my brother, Daniel. We flipped through the channels and landed on CBS42 just a short while later.
A tornado was forming over Tuscaloosa, and it was all caught on camera. Meteorologist Mark Prater watched as the tornado touched down at 5:13 p.m. and began leaving behind a path of destruction that left much of the city unrecognizable.
Prater mentioned a familiar landmark and we quickly made our way to the bathroom. Within moments, the roaring sound of the storm was noticed in the distance.
It crept closer and closer. Daniel pushed with all his might to keep the door shut as the tornado churned above the Charleston Square apartment complex where we had lived since August.
Windows crashed. The cracking sound of wood breaking and debris being thrown all around us could be heard, even as the pressure caused my ears to pop.
And then it was gone. Thirty seconds and the noise was over. The smell of pine was the first sign that something was badly wrong outside the doors of our bathroom. Then we heard the screams of people emerging from their apartments to witness the destruction the tornado left behind.
“Oh my goodness. Oh my gosh. The whole second floor is gone,” my brother said as we made our way out of the bathroom.
Glass and debris were strewn across the living room and the front door was blown off its hinges and inside the apartment. We stepped outside to see others were not nearly as fortunate. The entire second floor appeared to be completely demolished, most of the roofing gone and some units looking as if only floorboards remained.
A mother frantically looked for her son who lived above our apartment. His apartment, from the ground looking up, looked to be destroyed.
“My baby, my baby,” she cried. “My son lives there.”
Residents were going door-to-door asking others if they were alright. A couple put a makeshift bandage around a dog that was injured.
A paramedic at the front of the complex urged us to go find shelter because another storm was supposedly heading towards Tuscaloosa.
Daniel and I went inside to fit what we could into our backpacks and set off for University Village, a complex that appeared to be relatively unharmed by the storm. As we made our way towards the office of the complex, a friend spotted me and asked if he could help.
My friend took us to his apartment and left us with another friend of his, Cathie, while he went back onto the streets to see what he could do to help.
The next few hours were full of fright and a host of other emotions. We were scared, we were unsure what to do next, but we were thankful to be alive, especially knowing many others almost assuredly lost their lives.
When the sun set and it was clear the storms were over, Cathie, Daniel and I embarked on a journey towards campus so we could be with more people. We drove to a dorm with emergency lights on in the hallways. We just wanted to be somewhere that had some type of light. Matt, a friend of mine, took us all in, gave up his bed and allowed us to stay in his suite that night.
The next day he drove us around to meet my sister who drove down from Knoxville, Tennessee, to be with us. Although we wanted to return to the apartment and see what we could salvage, gas leaking from the demolished laundry facility prevented that from happening.
A few days later we were able to make it back to the complex. We were able to save some clothes and some dishes. Others in our complex were not as fortunate. Many lost all of their belongings.
More than 50 people died in Tuscaloosa, including two in Charleston Square. While grateful to be alive and able to salvage some material things, I’ve wrestled with the same thought over the past three years. Why them and not me? It’s a guilty feeling that has entered my mind time and time again.
In the months that followed, though, I was able to truly see the kindheartedness of the people in Alabama. People I didn’t know donated furniture for our new apartment. I had more clothes than I could ever possibly wear. And I had a renewed perspective on life.
Although it’s easy to forget those things and lose that perspective when normalcy returns, April will always serve as a reminder to be thankful for the things you have, thankful for merely being alive and to not taken anything for granted. Life can change in an instant.
It’s been three years, but those 30 seconds feel just like yesterday.
Copyright 2014 WIAT-TV CBS42