As a massive tornado barreled through Alabama’s Lee County on Sunday, leveling homes and ripping trees from the ground, residents scrambled to take cover, using whatever means possible to try to survive the deadly storm.
The tornado, preliminarily classified as an EF4 with 170 mph winds and the strongest to strike the US in several years, was one of many that tore across the Alabama–Georgia border region Sunday afternoon in a severe weather outbreak. At least 23 people were killed, including three children. Dozens of others were injured.
The tornado was almost a mile wide and cut a path 24 miles long, said Chris Darden of the National Weather Service.
“[It was] a monster tornado as it moved across the area,” he told reporters.
Forecasters first began discussing the threat of tornadoes Thursday, and tornado watches were issued Sunday morning. Around eight minutes before the tornado struck, the National Weather Service upgraded that to a tornado warning, and authorities said alerts were sent out to every cellphone in the area.
Greg Molinari, whose home was destroyed, told AL.com that he and his wife knew to take the storm seriously when the tornado sirens began going off. He said he received a text from his daughter-in-law, telling them to get into a bathroom and put pots over their heads.
“Well, the bathroom wasn’t a great idea because it’s an exterior wall. But we went in the hallway, which is a small, confined area here,” he told AL.com, recalling the harrowing near-death experience. “And we did put big cooking pots over our head. Saved our lives. The ceiling crashed in on us.”
Another survivor told CBS she hid in a closet when the tornado hit. When the winds passed, her roof was gone — and she was surrounded by chaos.
“It’s like a war zone,” she told CBS. “I knew it was bad, but I just didn’t know how bad.”
Joshua Waites told WVTM he was driving down the highway when he saw a woman with a baby walking away from destroyed homes. He said he asked if she needed anything, and she told him there were two people still alive and calling for help under the debris.
“We dug them out,” he told the station, adding they were still conscious and responsive. “They were in the bathroom and shower, and we managed to dig them out after about half an hour.”
Taylor Grantham told AL.com that she and her family felt lucky — their home only was left with a caved-in wall and damage to the roof, while others nearby were destroyed.
She added they heard the sirens, but her husband sprang to action when he saw the storm approaching.
“He grabbed a mattress and covered us,” she told AL.com. “We just were in the hallway and we stayed under the mattress until it was over.”
Another woman told AccuWeather she first realized the tornado was bearing down on her home when the wind picked up and she saw her horse was running and panicking.
She got into a bathtub with her husband, son, niece, and nephew, as the intense storm roared through, she said. Still, the destruction of her home and the surrounding area was difficult to comprehend.
“It really was beautiful out here,” she said.
Granadas Baker told the New York Times his first sign a tornado was coming was when his ears popped. He rushed his wife and three children into the bathroom, then pushed against the door as winds tried to rip it open, he said.
The storm lifted the roof off their home, but the Baker family survived.
“There wasn’t even time to be afraid,” he told the Times. “I mean, we were scared. But the Lord kept us. Things you can replace. Lives you cannot.”
In nearby Smiths Station, the Buck Wild Saloon’s roof and walls were ripped off by the wind. Owner David McBride told CBS News that he was sitting in his truck in the parking lot when the storm hit.
“I seen the trash swirling in the air across the field over there. Then I said, ‘Oh, no, this ain’t good,’” McBride said.
Across the street, gas station owner Charlie Patel was at the sales counter when the tornado began tearing away at the building around him, he told CBS.
Both men survived unharmed.
So did one woman’s dog, WRBL reported. The woman was reunited with her pet Sunday as she returned to the destruction that was her home.
Search and rescue teams continued to comb through the tornado’s path Monday, seeking any other potential victims. Lee County Sheriff Jay Jones said he expected to be finished Monday or Tuesday with search efforts that included K-9s, ground teams including volunteers, and drones with infrared technology.
“We’re basically using everything we can get our hands on to conduct our search,” he said.
Sunday’s tornado was the deadliest the US has seen in years, and for Lee County, it was all but unprecedented. Jones told reporters that in spite of the severity of the tornado, he had faith in the community.
“This community will rebuild. They will survive,” he said. “They’re tough folks, and they’re going to make it.”