A tornado killed 23 people in this Alabama town. Its residents say it could have been worse

The tornado smashed homes into each other, combining their contents into mammoth piles of wreckage. Brick homes are missing their roofs. Steel beams are twisted like shoelaces. Foundations sit empty like basketball courts. Wrecked cars and riding mowers rest atop mounds of rubble. Tall trees have been reduced to 6-foot mangled stumps. (Devon Sayers/CNN)

Trying to figure out what happened over the phone was torture.

murderous EF-4 tornado had leveled her parents’ neighborhood in this rural swath of southeast Alabama. Krystal Stenson-Garrett — two hours north at her kitchen table in Birmingham — was shaking.

She was on the phone with her cousin, Montasha Preston, who was in Beauregard, frantically trying to reach their childhood homes, three doors down from each other.

Preston couldn’t reach the neighborhood by car, so she got out and ran a half mile, hopping over downed trees and ducking under power lines.

Stenson-Garrett, 35, felt helpless. She pressed for answers, but Preston didn’t have any yet. She would call back when she had more information.

Then the calls started coming.

The first brought good news. Stenson-Garrett’s nephews, Eric, 17, and Dillian, 14, had been found. The storm had yanked them from her parents’ mobile home and tossed them across the street. They were hurt — Eric badly — but they were alive.

Preston called back. They had found Stenson-Garrett’s dad.

“Thank God,” she said.

“No, not thank God, Krystal,” Preston replied. “He didn’t make it.”

In the next call, Stenson-Garrett learned the twister had also taken her mother and only brother. In the final call, she was told her uncle was dead, too.

Of the 23 people killed in the deadliest US tornado in almost six years, four were her kin.

Rescue worker: ‘It’s all been put in a blender and blown for miles’

Days after the tornado, residents in this neighborhood along Lee Road 39 are struggling to process the devastation around them. There are areas a mile wide where no structure survived.

The tornado smashed homes into each other, combining their contents into mammoth piles of wreckage. Brick homes are missing their roofs. Steel beams are twisted like shoelaces. Foundations sit empty like basketball courts. Wrecked cars and riding mowers rest atop mounds of rubble. Tall trees have been reduced to 6-foot mangled stumps.

“You know the area, and you get to a point where you don’t know the area anymore,” said Mike Pooler, a drone systems instructor who has been working with a makeshift search-and-rescue team. “The houses on the hill are now in a pile.”

The horizon, long obscured by dense woods, is visible in the distance.

Before-and-after photos

The flotsam from the storm provides a window into the lives it overturned. Baby shoes. Broken china. Shrink-wrapped chickens. Liquor bottles. Shotgun shells. Unopened bills. A coloring book. American flag cornhole bags. Medicine bottles. Lots and lots of photos.

“It’s all been put in a blender and it’s just been blown for miles all over creation,” said Adam Littleton, 40, a bus driver also helping the search team.

Recovery, where it’s possible, will take months or longer. The buzz of chainsaws and scent of pine sap are everywhere, but even in this wasteland there’s a palpable belief among residents that this town can bounce back, especially the way the community has come together.

Many here will tell you the tornado is God testing them, and He would never put more on them than they can handle.

Survivors are putting aside their own sorrow to help others

The home of James and Stephanie Taunton was rocked so hard they can see daylight between the roof and a bedroom wall.

Their son, Zachary, 5, rode the school bus with one of the child victims, Armondo Hernandez, leaving the beleaguered parents to broach the realities of death with the boy sooner than they’d planned.

As he awaited financial assistance at a Disabled American Veterans table that had set up shop at Providence Baptist Church, James Taunton, 45, bristled at the notion he was a victim.

“We didn’t really lose anything. Literally, two miles from my house they have no home,” he said. “I feel guilty … How am I allowed to have my family intact and they’re not?”

Stories abound here of people putting aside their own sorrow to help others. Ask them about their losses and they’re quick to point to someone who lost more.

As bad as it is, it could’ve been worse. The tornado struck mid-afternoon Sunday, when many folks were at restaurants, eating lunch after church.

Lee County Coroner Bill Harris, who had to process 23 bodies from his mobile autopsy suite at a local middle school, said the death toll might have been higher if more residents had been home.

Justin Miller of nearby Opelika lost his mother, accountant and novelist Charlotte Miller, in the storm. Though she suffered from arthritis and didn’t get around well, she received a steroid injection so she could walk him down the aisle at his wedding. He loved his mama dearly.

“People lost whole families and every belonging,” said the 29-year-old. “I want more for them than for us because we’re fine. … We’re lucky and blessed because we have that closure and we know what to do.”

A teen girl is reunited with her lost pet bunny

At Providence Baptist Church in Opelika on Tuesday, scores of volunteers scrambled to feed folks and organize the stream of clothes, food and cleaning supplies arriving at the church’s community center.

Pooler and Bobby Dempsey waited at a tent where volunteers were making tacos for search crews. Pooler, 39, collected his meal and walked toward the church, a tattered white bunny with blue eyes tucked into his left arm.

Dempsey, 41, had found the rabbit under a 4-foot pile of drywall, flooring, shingles and furniture, he said. It was tame, obviously a pet, so the men posted a photo to Facebook.

As church volunteers gathered around, oohing and ahhing over the ball of cuteness, a man came out of the church and flagged down Pooler. They’d found the rabbit’s owner.

Euel Partridge, 54, arrived an hour or so later. The bunny belonged to his 16-year-old daughter, Laklyn. She called her Thumper, but Partridge joked that Thumper, of “Bambi” fame, was a boy, so he preferred Bun-Bun.

When the tornado hit his home on Lee Road 38, Partridge and his wife hunkered down in the middle of the house.

“It was like an earthquake. The walls were moving back and forth,” he said. “I grabbed my wife around the waist and said, ‘If we’re going to die, we’re going to die together.'”

The storm sent them flying and they landed in the back yard next to his lawnmower, its steering wheel sheared clean off.

If you saw his house, he said, you wouldn’t believe anyone inside survived, but Laklyn was released from the hospital Sunday. His wife was fitted for a neck brace and he suffered a broken vertebra but could still walk.

Their cat was missing, but they’d found their Labrador retriever and chihuahua. And now, “Bun-Bun the miracle bunny,” he said.

“I’m amazed she’s alive,” Partridge said. “I’m amazed we’re alive. I’m amazed any of us are alive.”

A shattered family must plan four burials

Outside an Opelika funeral home, Stenson-Garrett and a dozen family members gathered Wednesday to help each other through the hardest week of their lives.

There were four burials to plan: Stenson-Garrett’s parents, Henry Stenson and Florel Tate Stenson, 65 and 63. Her brother, Eric Stenson, 38. And her uncle, James Tate, 86.

Then there’s the story of young Dillian and Eric Stenson Jr., who Stenson-Garrett described as “walking miracles.”

“We were told no one could’ve survived it, and they did,” Stenson-Garrett said.

Families mourn and give thanks

When they came to after the tornado blew through their grandparents’ home, Dillian’s back was hurt. He couldn’t move, he said, but Eric made him, despite severe injuries of his own.

Eric didn’t know where their family was, so he ushered his little brother to their father’s car and they laid on the horn until a great uncle found them.

On Wednesday Eric sat in a wheelchair, nursing a broken shoulder blade, a punctured lung and stitches in his foot and toe.

Trauma hung on his and Dillian’s faces, reducing their voices to whispers.

The brothers lost their dad and grandparents. They still have their mother in nearby Auburn, but the family knows she’ll need help with them.

“We’re going to raise these boys together,” said Stenson-Garrett, who has two young daughters of her own. “I could not live on this Earth and not do what my mother has preached to me. I gotta do what I gotta do.”

‘It’s beautiful to see how the community has come together’

Stenson-Garrett’s cousin, Carlton Lilly, and her uncle, Terry Tate, walked a reporter down Lee Road 39, where four generations of Tates and Stensons have grown up.

There were so many kids, Lilly said, that when the cousins got off the school bus at grandma’s house, the bus would be empty.

Lilly’s 18-wheeler was parked in front of his aunt and uncle’s home when the tornado picked it up and wrapped it around a tree across the street, coiling the chassis as if it were aluminum.

Lilly, 34, was lying face down in his mobile home when the twister struck. He remembers feeling weightless for a spell and then landing against a tree in his back yard.

“I thought I was the only one who survived when I saw all those houses (gone),” he said.

Before he could gather his bearings, his phone went off again. Another tornado was touching down. Lilly saw the swirling clouds, and with no buildings left in which to seek shelter, he dove into a ditch, praying for forgiveness.

As he recounted his story Wednesday, a fellow truck driver walked up and gave him a hug and a box of clothes. Lilly’s home is gone, as is his rig, his livelihood. He has staples in his leg and an ankle fracture, but he wouldn’t accept sympathy.

“Don’t be sorry. I made it,” he said. “You could be doing this interview with just my uncle.”

A few doors down at the remains of Lilly’s grandparents’ home, Stenson-Garrett surveyed the pile of cinderblocks, tears fresh in her eyes from witnessing the wreckage in person.

Memories are all that remain of this road where she, her brother and cousins grew up enjoying her mother’s stellar cooking. Stenson-Garrett loved to bring her daughters here to visit “the best granddad ever.”

They’d just finished a visit Sunday. They were supposed to stay for church, but she left in the morning to beat the storm. She didn’t want to drive in the rain.

On Wednesday Stenson-Garrett was elated when one of her parents’ neighbors presented her with the sonogram of her oldest daughter, found down the road. Another neighbor salvaged an old photo of her parents in their twenties.

Up and down the street, residents fished photos from rubble and tree limbs, showing them to neighbors in hopes of returning them to their owners.

“I can’t believe these people are down here doing this right now. These are people I’ve never seen in my life,” Stenson-Garrett said. “It’s sad, but it’s beautiful to see how the community has really come together.”

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