Tornado survivors' stories: 'It looks like an atomic bomb went off'
Some of the worst damage from Wednesday's tornadoes was in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.
April 29th, 2011
12:56 AM ET

Tornado survivors' stories: 'It looks like an atomic bomb went off'

[Updated at 3:16 a.m. ET] More than 300 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:

Employees huddled in a windowless break room at a CVS drug store in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, as a tornado approached and a deafening roar filled the air, store manager Michael Zutell said.

A mother cradling an infant sprinted inside just before the twister hit.

"Glass is breaking. The woman with the baby is screaming. Part of the drop ceiling fell and boxes fly in," he said.

No one inside the store was injured, Zutell said. "It's mind-boggling to think you walked away."

Shortly before a massive tornado tore through her Tuscaloosa 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.' "

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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."

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Filed under: Alabama • Georgia • Mississippi • Tennessee • Tornadoes • Weather
soundoff (11 Responses)
  1. Michael


    April 29, 2011 at 3:28 am | Report abuse |
  2. helenecha

    It's amazing only the bathroom was standing when the storm passed.

    April 29, 2011 at 4:11 am | Report abuse |
  3. banasy

    Oh, man.

    April 29, 2011 at 8:28 am | Report abuse |
  4. Jeff

    Let's ask FEMA why their 28 FEDERAL Urban Search and Rescue (USAR) Teams didn't respond to the disaster area. They will tell you that the states didn't request them. Our tax dollars are supporting a system that is under utilized and maybe it's time we talk about funding our state teams rather than funding a Federal System that is bogged down by beurocracy. There's a problem with this system (Feds vs. State) These teams have 2 million dollars worth of equipment and supplies to respond to disasters. Each team sends 75 people to do the rescues. How many of those 300 people that died were actually waiting for someone to rescue them and passed away under the rubble? We will never know. Alabama sent their team (29 people), but the law of averages and the number of victims to rescuer ratio do not match. It's interesting how we can send teams to Haiti and New Zealand quicker than we can to our own terra firma.

    April 29, 2011 at 8:28 am | Report abuse |
    • discjocke

      Take time to think what you just said. Do you think these organizations are sitting in vehicles waiting for something to happen, so they can be at the location in a heartbeat? Do you think 342 people are going to be laying on the side of the street waiting for the help to pass by and help them, or are a good portion of them going to be either under debris or not near a street. It's disgusting how people like you expect mircales. Be realistic, and not shallow-minded.

      April 30, 2011 at 9:47 am | Report abuse |
    • Eric

      Jeff..... While I can appreciate your cynicism toward our federal government and its deficiencies. Your comments about this response are inaccurate. First of all the State of Alabama has a Type I USAR team and several light/medium/heavy rescue teams as part of the Alabama Mutual Aid System. I happen to be a member of our USAR team and made the response to this tragic event. While on this response we worked along side military, a type III asset from Louisiana and K9 assets from Tennessee which were from TNTF1, one of those federal teams you claim did not respond. I trust this response will find you well and provide fact rather than opinion.

      July 20, 2012 at 2:24 am | Report abuse |
  5. banasy

    Really, Jeff? If that's true, oh, boy! I get that we send teams to disasters worldwide, but are they the same ones that respond to ours? I am really curious...because there is something seriously wrong wit our way of thinking if this is true.

    April 29, 2011 at 8:43 am | Report abuse |
    • Jeff

      FEMA has 28 teams positioned around the country. Not every state has a federal team. 2 million x 28 = 56 million dollars in equipment that is waiting to be deployed. As far as I know, only Virginia and Tennessee have been sent. SO only 4 million out of the 56 million is being used. These are classified as a Type 1 teams-72 people doing heavy rescue/search. At the Oklahoma City bombing 14 FEMA teams were brought in. Not one of those teams saved a live person. 28 million dollars was spent on recovery...... State teams don't get that luxury of money. They have to be a smaller team (Type 3) light rescue teams. Smaller teams mean less people to do the rescuin', which in turn means less survivors. Ask your local Fire Department if they have the resources to get someone out of a building collapse. They will probably say YES. But then ask them if there was multiple buildings, with multiple people trapped, where the next closest resources are coming from. You might not like the answer.

      April 29, 2011 at 11:58 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Sandy

    Well I don't live in Alabama but in Tennessee. There were also plenty of tornadoes here but thank God they were at least 10 miles from where I live but the storms themselves even without the tornadoes were plenty scary. I can't imagine how the people in Alabama and the surrounding states feel. There was so much wind I thought my living room windows were going to blow out, and the lightening was as scary as I've ever seen it, the rain was torrential. My weather radio went off at least 12 times throughout the day with tornado warnings and I only have one other county (which is southwest of us and storms usually move northeast) programmed on my radio. I pray for everyone devastated by this. News says this could be the worst weather outbreak since the storms of April 74, I was here for that one too. I was 14 years old at the time but was scared to death then as well. That time we had a tornado about a mile down the road and we still heard huge explosions and vibration.

    April 29, 2011 at 9:08 am | Report abuse |
  7. Mary Levy

    Where are the celebrities who seem to have the ability to fly anywhere and get all the photo ops for their generosity? Yet, they don't appear to be rushing, not even making public comments or appeals for help for us. Tuscaloosa is devastated, but it is a college town with a lot of sports support, and it could recover quicker than say, Pratt City, or Forestdale, or Hackleburg. I was blessed with no damage or injuries, but I can't even watch the news reports right now because it is so heartbreaking. Please step up and help the people who watch the shows and attend the movies and provide the popularity for the careers that are enjoyed.

    April 30, 2011 at 2:46 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Glowing Green

    and now they must endure the radiation.

    May 1, 2011 at 1:03 am | Report abuse |