FULTONDALE, Ala. — A teenager sheltering in his basement was killed and several family members were critically injured when a tornado blew a tree onto their home in Alabama, police said Tuesday.
Many others narrowly escaped with their lives. The twister injured at least 30 people overall as it 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 Patty 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 ended up in awkward positions, as if a child had scattered a collection of Matchbox cars. One car landed upside down against some 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 teenager killed was a 14-year-old in the ninth grade, according to Jefferson County Superintendent Dr. 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 roadways. Some houses had entire roofs missing.
The sound of chainsaws sliced through the cool sunny morning 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 youngest daughter. 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 it.
“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,” Williams said.
A broken pipe spewed water into the air Tuesday morning as Jason 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 cant find them. I just found part of the guinea pig cage,” he said.
Fultondale Fire Chief Justin McKenzie said 30 people were injured and 18 of those had to go to hospital. Six others were pulled uninjured from damaged structures Tuesday morning.
The school superintendent said they’re 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. Damage stretched from there to Center Point. Downed power lines and debris closed Interstate 65 near Walker Chapel Road 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 county’s emergency management agency tweeted that several schools would be closed Tuesday for both traditional and remote students, including Fultondale High, Center Point High and Clay-Chalkville High.
“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 early Tuesday. “I offer my prayers & deepest sympathies & pledge the full support & resources our state has to offer. I am with you, Fultondale!”
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 (129 kilometers) long, according to the National Weather Service.
Weather Service survey crews have yet to confirm this twister’s estimated strength, but FEMA described it as a “large tornado.”
“Sadly, here in Fultondale we are very experienced with this kind of thing,” McKenzie said.
After blowing across Georgia, the storms were rolling over the Carolinas around dawn. Boaters on Lake Murray near Columbia were warned to seek harbor as winds of up to 50 mph were moving through, the National Weather Service said in a statement early Tuesday.
Associated Press Writer Jeff Martin in Marietta, Georgia, and Desiree Mathurin in Atlanta contributed to this report.