Alabama teen killed, family critically injured while sheltering from tornado: ‘They were doing what they were supposed to be doing’

Published 11:38 am Tuesday, January 26, 2021

A teenager sheltering in his basement was killed and several of his family members were critically injured when a tornado blew a tree onto their home in Alabama, police said Tuesday. At least 30 other people were injured as the twister carved a path of destruction north of Birmingham.

The tornado caused damage for 10-miles (16 kilometers), from Fultondale to Center Point, striking an area severely harmed by a much larger tornado a decade ago.

Pieces of buildings, furniture, appliances and trees were strewn about and vehicles ended up in awkward positions, as if a child had flung his collection of Matchbox cars into the air. 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 student in the ninth grade, according to Jefferson County Superintendent Dr. Walter Gonsoulin. He said other students — they’re trying to determine how many — may be homeless now, and 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.

In one neighborhood, it was difficult to tell where houses had stood in the tangled wreckage. Children’s toys and clothing were scattered around a landscape where every visible structure was damaged or destroyed.

Tim and Patti Herring ran to their bathroom when they got the warning that a tornado was headed their way. It struck moments later, ripping away their roof and two sides of their home while they huddled in the bathtub.

“I could feel stuff falling down and hitting me, but we’re OK,” Tim Herring said.

Shaken and teary, Patti picked through the debris looking for a missing cat and her late mother’s cherished belongings.

Fultondale Fire Chief Justin McKenzie said 30 people were injured and 18 of those had to go to hospital. Search and rescue crews are going from home to home and checking the rooms of a heavily damaged hotel. Six people were pulled uninjured from damaged structures Tuesday morning.

Injuries range from minor to severe but search and rescue efforts are still ongoing, said James Coker, the director of the Jefferson County Emergency Management Agency.

Police blocked intersections leading to the hardest hit areas of Fultondale, a suburb that’s home to about 9,000 people. Pieces of buildings 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.

Coker said Interstate 65 near Walker Chapel Road is closed due to downed power lines and debris. He also said workers are currently removing obstacles from the roadways. Other homes and buildings were damaged in the storm, including a Hampton Inn hotel, which 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.