Tornado survivors' stories: Flying Jeeps, moving earth, neighborhoods gone
Some of the worst damage from Wednesday's tornadoes was in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.
April 28th, 2011
01:57 AM ET

Tornado survivors' stories: Flying Jeeps, moving earth, neighborhoods gone

[Updated at 9:57 p.m. ET] More than 280 people have been killed by the wave of violent weather that has swept across the South the past two days.

Survivors told of entire neighborhoods reduced to rubble and the terror of tornadoes ripping through their homes and businesses.

Here are the voices of some survivors:

Shortly before a massive tornado tore through her Tuscaloosa, Alabama, neighborhood on Wednesday, Lucy Arnold Sykes decided the weather was ominous enough to shelter her 3-year-old and 6-year-old children in a bathtub.

"I ran in with the kids and kind of joked (to my husband), 'Don't make fun of me for putting the kids in the bathtub, but I think this is serious,' " she told CNN's "The Situation Room" on Thursday. "He went out for one last look, and … he came back in with kind of a strange look on his face, and he said, 'It's right outside the door.' "

Have the tornadoes affected you? Share your stories, photos and video

The edge of the tornado passed across the street, but the wind tore apart a corner of the house, sent a tree crashing onto the roof, broke nearly all the windows and flipped her vehicle from the curb onto her front lawn.

The family is OK and stayed with friends on Wednesday night.

"(The kids) want to know when they’re going to go back home. I don't think that will be anytime soon. We're going to be looking for a new house," she said.

Brian Wilhite is an internist at Druid City Hospital in Tuscaloosa. He spoke to CNN on Thursday morning.

"It looked more like a Vietnam War site than a hospital. I know one physician who watched two people die right in front of him. There was nothing he could do."

And as for the city, where 36 people were known to have been killed as of Thursday morning:

"It looks like an atomic bomb went off in a straight line. It's probably close to a mile wide. There are areas where neighborhoods are completely gone."

Restaurant owner Gary Lewis described what he saw on 15th Street in Tuscaloosa for

"Everything I saw was gone. (McAlister's), major damage. No Taco Casa, no McDonald's, Mike and Ed's Barbeque, major damage. All those houses on that little lake are splintered. This thing (Wednesday) afternoon was a monster."

University of Alabama business student Michael Neese took cover in the stairwell of his apartment near 15th Street, according to Raycom News Network.

"It was like a white cloud just twirling in the parking lot next door to me. All of 15th Street is gone," he said.

University of Alabama student Adam Melton told The Crimson White he was in off-campus housing as the storm approached. "When it hit, the house lifted up off of us, and then a Jeep Cherokee came right over us and hit me in the head. We were underneath ... the Jeep on our knees and chest for the end of it. After we got hit, we pulled five or six people out, but it was gone. The house was gone."

Fred Jackson, 48, told The Tuscaloosa News what it was like in Tuscaloosa's Alberta community:

“The earth went to moving. Roots were pulling up. Everything was moving. The house is destroyed. We had to get out through a window. ... Alberta is gone. I've lost everything."

In Pleasant Grove, Alabama, Charisse Hudson on Thursday tried to figure out which pile of debris was her home. Flattened homes and downed trees littered her neighborhood, making it difficult to get her bearing. Eventually, she found her property.

"The only reason I knew this was my house was because my car was on top of it," she said, referencing the blue vehicle resting on a mound of rubble.

Before Wednesday's storm struck, the Hudson family left the home because the power had gone out.

“It was a blessed thing we did," Hudson said. "One of our neighbors said, ‘Well, I'm going to tough it out. I'm going to stay home.' " Asked whether she knew where that neighbor was Thursday, she answered, on the verge of tears: "I'm not sure."

Beth Varden took shelter during Wednesday’s storm with her husband in the basement of their Pleasant Grove home. The step was rare for her: She likes to sit outside to watch storms but said she sensed that Wednesday’s weather was different.

After the couple were in the basement, "the house was really shaking, and stuff started sucking out of the garage," she recalled Thursday. "You could hear everything moving upstairs moving around, and you hear a roar."

"After (the storm) left, we came out, and the first thing we saw was (a neighbor’s) house gone," she said.

Most of the houses in the immediate area were heavily damaged or destroyed, but hers was standing. She said she's struggling with guilt because her neighbors' homes weren't spared.

Rachael Mulder was asleep in her second-floor apartment in Duncanville, Alabama, just before the storm devastated the building. Her husband woke her up.

"I just remember him running in and grabbing me and saying, 'Honey, hurry! Get in the tub!' And we ran in the tub and took shelter, and probably 30 seconds later, it was just like so loud, and it was just like an earthquake, almost," she said.

When the storm passed, only the bathroom was standing. Her husband opened the bathroom door, "and we were outside."

Mulder, a nurse, said her husband called her to an injured woman in another damaged unit.

"I grabbed my first aid kit and ran down the stairs, and tried to help her. I tried to stop her bleeding and save her, but she was taking her last breaths, and she passed away right there," she said.

In Hueytown, Alabama, Jason Wilson gathered his family, including a daughter, 10, and son, 7, in an auto repair shop his family owns, according to

"We was fixing to go home and heard the siren. We took cover. It's about all you can do. And then it just blew the roof off."

In the northern Georgia town of Ringgold, where at least three people were killed in Wednesday's storms, Reba Self told CNN Radio that she and her mother are lucky to be alive. There were in the lower portion of a house when a storm hit, knocking the home off its foundation and causing a tree to fall through the roof.

"I don't know how we lived through it, but we did," she said Thursday.

In Smithville, Mississippi, Tammie Vaughn told the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal how a twister swept into the town of 900.

"There was a lot of fog from the rain, and all of a sudden the fog disappeared, swept into the swirl of the tornado, and it sounded awful. I’ve never seen or heard anything like it."

In Tennessee, William Hart told the Chattanooga Times Free Press how he grabbed his 3-year-old son and dived for a small space between the foot of his bed and a dresser in their doublewide trailer home.

"I heard the roof rip off. The mirror fell over this way and was actually laying on me. And I was just thinking, 'That’s the end of it for the both of us.' I know the only reason I’m alive is by the grace of God. He was protecting me and my son."

Were you affected by the tornadoes? Share your images, stories with CNN iReport.

soundoff (501 Responses)
  1. Darlene

    May God Bless each and everyone that was affect by this storm. Everyone is in my prayers.

    April 28, 2011 at 4:36 pm | Report abuse |
    • Bama

      Thank you , we need all your prayers....

      April 28, 2011 at 6:01 pm | Report abuse |
  2. HMD

    Who cares what anyone believes or doesn't believe. Everyone is on here fighting about it, while people & families have lost EVERYTHING!!! There are people dead because of this! I feel so bad for all the families...

    April 28, 2011 at 4:37 pm | Report abuse |
    • APAK

      I agree. Let's love, not hate during these sad days. There are so many people suffering. They need a helping hand.

      April 28, 2011 at 5:06 pm | Report abuse |
  3. xamao27516

    I must say that the Americans should build homes with metal and concrets instead of wood boards.

    April 28, 2011 at 4:38 pm | Report abuse |
    • Toto

      Great idea, but I can't find any concrets. Where'd you get yours, at the Home Depit?

      April 28, 2011 at 4:58 pm | Report abuse |
    • S Sinha

      I couldn't agree with more.
      I really don;t understand why the homes are build by wood, woodboard, plywood. Why not with concrete?
      At least the the outside wall and roof should be built with concrete.
      It will eventually reduce the cost of insurance, heating, cooling etc.

      April 28, 2011 at 5:00 pm | Report abuse |
    • Kay

      Problem is, lots of structures that were built with metal and concrete were destroyed as well. Sometimes, there's just not much you can do.

      April 28, 2011 at 5:04 pm | Report abuse |
    • Timothy C

      It is much more expensive to build with concrete–that's the main reason.

      April 28, 2011 at 5:09 pm | Report abuse |
    • Steve

      a lot of those people can't afford homes(look up trailer park if you don't know what one is) made of concrete as well. times are tough for many in this country. I'm sure there are quite a few people happy about the economic opportunity this tragedy has affected. and as good little capitalists thats what we're taught to do(before all the education funding gets stripped more). look for the business opportunity. for those that have lost anything in this, I am sorry.

      April 28, 2011 at 5:21 pm | Report abuse |
    • Populares

      well, the thing about concrete is that tornadoes will destroy that too.. and if it doesn't destroy it.. it will push entire walls an make it crumble over people, smashing them. Brick, like wood, are picked up by tornadoes and turned into projectiles...

      April 28, 2011 at 5:28 pm | Report abuse |
    • Wood is what The South makes

      Wood is one of the largest exports the South has. They shouldn't build their homes out of it?

      Perhaps you should review pictures of Tuscaloosa, AL and Smithville, MS. Homes made out of bricks were completely leveled. No matter what you made your home out of, it would be destroyed and you would be injured if you were in the path of those f5 tornados.

      April 28, 2011 at 5:42 pm | Report abuse |
    • PJ

      We used to live in Tuscaloosa in the 80s. A tornado came very close one year and we had nowhere to go,because there was no basement under the apt. Actually, very few basements in what is called Tornado Alley. I'm not sure why that is, was given a number of reasons but few of them made real sense. Even a shallow cellar would be better than nothing.

      April 28, 2011 at 7:18 pm | Report abuse |
  4. heather

    tammy- you have to die to go to heaven. god gives life so you can come to earth. god gives death so you can go to heaven. i don't know that dying will be more painful then being bon was. when you say jesus didn't save them, save them from what? going to heaven?
    saah- women wear head coverings because when you are in the presence of god supposedly your blood pressure can skyocket and you lose heat through the top of your head. the covering makes you less likely to faint or go into shock. instead of making assumptions reseachers could ask the amish woman or the guy on the soap box, why the hat?
    the guy hit in th head- i took it to mean he was on his hands and knees and the jeep flew and landed over top of him. his point being that rolled up in a ball the space under the jeep as only enough for his body so that the bottom of the the jeep touched the back of his head. had he been slightly bigger he would have had the back of his skull caved in. he almost died. i am guessing. i had to read it more then once to get a understanding

    April 28, 2011 at 4:39 pm | Report abuse |
    • Him

      Very beautiful statements you made. No should be afraid of dying or think that God messed up when people lose their lives. Storms, and disasters are part of systems on the earth. Even Christ died who gives eternal life, because it is not the physical life Christ is giving but eternal life for heaven the best place to live. When ever our mission is finished here on Earth we rest in heaven, hence the saying rest in peace.

      April 28, 2011 at 7:21 pm | Report abuse |
  5. justme

    KM perhaps if you look at the comments above mine you will see what I am talking about. Or maybe you could even take a quick look at ANGEL's comment so that you can get caught up before you stick your foot in your mouth again.

    April 28, 2011 at 4:40 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Krystin in Tuscaloosa

    I don't know how they are going to rebuild this. My neighborhood is gone. I'm hoping the death toll does not go up but I'm not optimistic. There were a lot of people stuck and screaming for help and people working to free them when we were finally able to get out of the house yesterday.

    April 28, 2011 at 4:40 pm | Report abuse |
    • Kay

      Hi Krystin, I'm up in Birmingham myself. I hope you know everyone up here is keeping you guys in our thoughts and prayers, and is looking for ways to help, etc. What a terrible day for our state. We'll get through it though. Best of luck to you!!

      April 28, 2011 at 5:09 pm | Report abuse |
    • APAK

      So sorry to hear this. You are in my thoughts and prayers.

      April 28, 2011 at 5:10 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jenny

      Krystin- My heart and prayers are soaring your way. We are doing what we can from Idaho to bring relief efforts to those of you devastated by this craziness. Thank you for keeping the topic on track and for bringing us word from your part of the country. May God bless all of you in your efforts to find peace and rest at this time.

      April 28, 2011 at 7:30 pm | Report abuse |
  7. MrMailman


    April 28, 2011 at 4:40 pm | Report abuse |
    • Bob

      Outstanding. 😉

      April 28, 2011 at 5:16 pm | Report abuse |
    • Nina

      As a huge Tool fan, I feel the need to refute your statement. This song is about wiping away the vanity, greed and narcissism of Los Angeles, not the homes, schools and businesses of hardworking, decent people in Alabama, Mississippi or anywhere else that was affected by these storms. I am quite sure that wiping entire families and livelihoods off the map is NOT what MJK had in mind. It's very sad to me in this situation to see anyone do anything but reaching out to help. No matter how different these people may be from yourself, it seems to me that it would just be the natural human reaction to try to ease their suffering. May I ask where you live? Somewhere completely void of the possibility of a natural disaster? If not, would you hope these same people would come to your aid in a time of crisis (or at the very least, not enjoy it?). How about the the aid of your family? Your children? Remember..."cold silence has a tendency to atrophy any sense of compassion between supposed...brothers".

      April 28, 2011 at 5:32 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Name*Scott

    Ahhh, CNN, has the reality check. 400 dead ,one headline,but three headlines on the Royal wedding!!! What is truly important!

    April 28, 2011 at 4:40 pm | Report abuse |
  9. jack

    Since the first day I came to this country from Eastern Europe I was asking myself WHY are houses made out of wooden panels in America? OK, maybe in California because of earthquakes, but why everywhere else? See how that brick and concrete building on the photo survived the tornado intact! Everything in America is big and quite sturdy except houses. And you do have a lot of devastating tornadoes each year. So.....

    April 28, 2011 at 4:41 pm | Report abuse |
    • klilly

      I live in Mississippi and have seen plenty of tornado dammage. Concrete would not have done any good against these monsters. The house you are talking about is an example of how tornados completely destroy one building and leave the building right next to it untouched. These monster tornados would have destroyed anything in their path and they did.

      April 28, 2011 at 5:45 pm | Report abuse |
    • Maybe because the US has a lot of trees?

      We built our houses out of wood just like people have done for hundreds of years (and those 150 year old Antebellum homes made from wood are STILL standing). We have a massive amount of trees. Perhaps you should check some of the other photos brick houses and concrete buildings were destroyed by tornados too.

      NOTHING will stand to a F5 tornado. Sorry to burst your bubble.

      April 28, 2011 at 5:47 pm | Report abuse |
    • John Smith

      Lumber is cheap and plentiful here in North America, compared to the rest of the world. Most of Europe was deforested centuries ago.

      April 28, 2011 at 5:52 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jomo

      You can build a house out of whatever you want to in the USA – just need money to buy the supplies.

      April 28, 2011 at 6:29 pm | Report abuse |
    • Elkonig99

      I'm an insurance auditor and my family is in the construction business. 99% of homes in America are 'stick built'. Whether they have a brick exterior, they still have a wood frame. With a 250+ mph wind in such as small area...pushing and pulling (as it goes by) a tornado will level ANYTHING in its path. The houses that were 'spared' in these photos were on the fringes of the tornado not directly in its path. You can tell that from the photos as well. You can also see video of buildings with steel frames and concrete exteriors on Atlanta's news websites covering the tornado damage in North GA. Those buildings were also equally destroyed. So it doesn't matter whether it's 'stick built' or 'steel and concrete' will be obliterated either way. I'd much rather have 2x4s and plywood falling around my head in a tornado than a concrete cinder block or steel beam that's for sure. The best way to survive a tornado is proper warning and a shelter either prefab or in a basement.

      April 28, 2011 at 8:21 pm | Report abuse |
  10. heyswsss

    "I know the only reason I’m alive is by the grace of God. He was protecting me and my son."

    WOW i have a problem with that quote! does this crazy person actually think god hand picks which people get to live and die? does she not understand that many other people died, including children! is she trying to say that those who died weren't worthy to live in gods eyes? tldr: god(if he exists) has no control over what happens on earth, we are on our own here.

    April 28, 2011 at 4:41 pm | Report abuse |
    • Way to go

      HEYSSSSSSS: GET A F'ING GRIP!! Don't comment like an IDIOT on people's beliefs.... The person is NOT implying anything of the sort!! DONT' TWIST THINGS THAT OTHER PEOPLE SAY!! These people went through HELL last night and your're going to sit there in your protected airconditioned home safe from the elements and have the nerve and gall to CRITIQUE? SHAME ON YOU!! YOU ARE AN IDIOT!!!

      April 28, 2011 at 5:06 pm | Report abuse |
    • comeagain

      How do you know God doesn't exist?

      Have you heard that saying, that's its best to be quite and let others think that you are a fool, than to open your mouth and remove all doubt.

      April 28, 2011 at 5:13 pm | Report abuse |
    • APAK

      Seriously, he has that RIGHT to say what he said. It is a free country, though it wouldn't be if people like you ran it.

      April 28, 2011 at 5:14 pm | Report abuse |
    • Sandy

      Newsflash: "by the grace of God" is a phrase used by Christians who had no expectation of a good outcome in a bad situation, so they attribute the fortunate outcome to God. The non-religious version gives luck the credit, as in "it was just lucky we made it out alive." Neither one is an invitation to debate religion. Obviously this guy doesn't think God decided he was better than anyone else, he is just relieved from the bottom of his heart that he and his child survived. How nice of you to malign him for this very human reaction.

      April 28, 2011 at 5:20 pm | Report abuse |
    • RAH

      WOW your not to bright I see!

      April 28, 2011 at 5:24 pm | Report abuse |
    • Stan

      You're wrong, Sandy–he specifically said "he was protecting me and my son". I agree with heyswsss–that is a foolish and insensitive thing to say becuase it implies that 'God' favors him over the folks who died. There is no way to candy coat it.

      April 28, 2011 at 5:49 pm | Report abuse |
    • heyswsss

      Uhh sorry but I'm 100% right. Do you think this is the first time I've heard/seen someone thanking god for saving a life? NO! it happens after every disaster. Maybe this guy just meant it as "oh we got lucky", but I doubt that, I honestly think in his mind god was looking down on his house from space and decided to spare him and his kid.

      April 28, 2011 at 5:56 pm | Report abuse |
    • Elkonig99


      Give it a rest. There is a time and a place to argue about religion and people's beliefs and this is definitely not the time nor the place. If you want to argue your point of view on religion, start a blog but don't come here bashing other people's beliefs just because you're a 'non believer'. People in the south are of much more faith, even non Christians, that I've seen in many other parts of the country. Respect the man for surviving this ordeal and appreciate that it wasn't you who went through it.

      Personally, I don't agree with what he said either but that's a personal belief. It's not my place to judge him for his beliefs any more than it is for me to judge you for your absence of beliefs. Religion is personal and what he experienced with his son last night may have more to do with luck or possibly a higher power; whichever I think we can agree that everything happens for a reason.

      April 28, 2011 at 8:33 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Roger Garrett

    Here's an idea for CNN. When you provide videos of a disaster, how about leaving off the advertisements from the videos? It just seems incredibly inappropriate to be trying to sell products in conjunction with a tragedy.

    April 28, 2011 at 4:44 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Savana

    Everything gets turned into a religious discussion. Probably because religious people have to link everything with Jesus or gospels or prayer. Ugh, so tiresome. Maybe because the storms are a boring topic. People die everyday. I did find the relation to Hiroshima quite hilarious though, not even on the same scale. Get hit with an atomic bomb and tell me that you still think that.

    April 28, 2011 at 4:47 pm | Report abuse |
    • Sonia

      I thought the same thing. It's not the same as being hit with an atomic bomb. It's a ridiculous comparison.

      April 28, 2011 at 5:07 pm | Report abuse |
    • RHQuad

      Why don't you share your tornado survival experience with us.

      April 28, 2011 at 5:26 pm | Report abuse |
    • voice of reason

      The comparison to an atomic bomb is actually interesting. The energy expended by one of these tornadoes far exceeds that of the Hiroshima or Nagasaki bombs. Combined.

      April 28, 2011 at 6:38 pm | Report abuse |
    • Savana

      You're talking about if all of the "potential energy" the tornado has explodes at once. It doesn't do that though so a tornado doesn't compare. And some of todays most devastating nuclear weapons exceed the megatons of potential energy that could be released in a tornado, for the record. As far as my tornado survival experience, my comment is that it is possible to survive a tornado. If a nuclear weapon was used in the same city it wouldn't be there anymore, just for thought.

      April 28, 2011 at 8:20 pm | Report abuse |
  13. seal

    I'm sure gods (whichever god you might believe in) had a plan. How many 'churches' were destroyed in this storm? hmmm perhaps they're not praying to the 'right god' eh? i mean, if they were – why would they be GONE?! Perhaps this will be good for the economy? As for the 'it's like an atomic bomb went off quotes... no it's not. if it was, there would be 10's of thousands dead, not 100's.

    April 28, 2011 at 4:48 pm | Report abuse |
    • james

      Hey!!!!!!!!!! Seal,and heyswww,, what u two need is is lose your homes, or a loved one. My some act of God. Then let the people of USA know how u feel then. May god have mers. on U two. Because I feel none for U two.

      April 28, 2011 at 8:49 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Rachel

    So when are we going to received help from China?

    April 28, 2011 at 4:51 pm | Report abuse |
    • jame

      YEAH! China?? (nice one Rachel)

      April 28, 2011 at 5:05 pm | Report abuse |
    • Way to go

      Oh believe me when China decides to CASH IN on all the of our debt... We will be in BIG TROUBLE... Your government has sold you out.. CHINA will own the USA.

      April 28, 2011 at 5:11 pm | Report abuse |
    • Elkonig99

      Exactly...China has more men in their military then we have people in our country. Do the math... A couple months ago Hilllary Clinton was in China and witnessed the Chinese unveiling their new 'super carrier' the first aircraft carrier they have launched...something that the western powers have had a monopoly on since WW2. The same day, the Chinese unveiled an "anti aircraft carrier missile" capable of sinking one of our carriers with one shot. Coincidence? The Chinese claim they are to 'protect their citizens and interests overseas'... in what country does China have it's most interest and citizens? You guessed it...our country. They are getting ready to invade and the 'funny' thing is we are paying for our own future invasion. China's laughing all the way to the bank. Everyone better start practicing that Mandarin.

      April 28, 2011 at 8:40 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Daryl

    Tragedy never fails to bring out the bitter division between "believers" and "non-believers." Isn't it enough that so many people have lost their lives or all that they own? If all the energy devoted to arguments about creation of life could be funneled into helping those devastated by the weather crisis, you could all share in doing something real for these people rather than leave them to their own peril. No one really cares what you believe anyway and your influence either way is worthless. Try being human for a change. You'll sleep better.

    April 28, 2011 at 4:51 pm | Report abuse |
    • cheyanne

      Daryl, Thank you there are some sane people in this we as a nation in tradgedy have in the past put our difference aside and were sympathetic to those who loss and we didnt argue and fight about things that dont matter at the time we as a nation have to get back to how we reacted when columbine happen, when 9-11 those were the days America was bonded together in the eye of tradgedy not nit picky to each other.

      April 28, 2011 at 7:15 pm | Report abuse |
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