In a small town, tornado took all there was

The tornado that destroyed Hackleburg attacked the little town’s first line of defense.

It leveled the town’s tiny police station and crushed the police cruiser of Officer Jeremy Marbutt, who emerged unscathed after taking cover in the old town jail, built of steel and concrete.

It destroyed the fire station and blew away the roof of the town hall, where 69-year-old Mayor Douglas Gunnin survived to continue serving the town’s 1,500 constituents.


Photo gallery: Tornadoes cut path of devastation

Then it flattened the Piggy Wiggly, the only grocery store, but spared manager Dennis Whitfield, who hid under a produce rack.

It crushed the massive Wrangler denim factory, Hackleburg’s biggest employer. A dozen workers on the second shift escaped unhurt, but Linda Knight, the office supervisor, was killed by a falling roof beam.

It tore through Gracie’s diner, the town’s main restaurant.

It ripped apart the new $3-million Church of God of Prophecy, built just last year, and for good measure pummeled the church’s former building across the street.

It took down the offices of the town’s only doctor and only pharmacist, along with the only merchandise outlet in town, the Dollar Store.

It wiped out the town’s grade school and high school, home of the Panthers.

Tornado photos

Scenes from the devastated South

In all, the tornado that struck Wednesday killed 18 people, injured hundreds and left almost nothing standing.

“It’s like the photos you see of Hiroshima after the atomic bomb — I mean, it wiped out everything,” said city councilman James Anglin, who was born in 1943, the year another April tornado leveled the northwest Alabama town.

Randy Jackson, the Marion County coroner, has spent the last three days dealing with the dead. He stood in the devastated town center Saturday, sweating in a blue shirt and tie, and tried to describe what a tornado can do to human beings.

“As an old country boy, I’d say they had trauma from head to toe,” he said. “The injuries were massive, just massive blunt trauma.”

Three victims were so badly mangled that they have not been identified. Not even Mayor Gunnin, born and raised in Hackleburg, was able to help figure out who they were. Some were thrown hundreds of yards and ripped apart.

The dead ranged in age from 32 to 92.

The youngest was Chris Dunn, a handyman who died after he rebuffed his girlfriend’s pleas to join her in a storm shelter. He wanted to continue his afternoon nap. He was not afraid of storms, having run out into a recent hail storm to collect balls of ice.

“He told me to wake him up if the storm hit, but when I saw a big black cloud forming, he just growled at me and rolled over,” said Tabatha Harper, 32.

Harper ran to the storm shelter. “When I came out, it was dead quiet and everything was gone,” she said.

Dunn’s body was found 200 yards away, near a creek where the remains of an elderly man were also recovered. A rescue crew found the body of Harper’s pit bull, Bear, in a nearby tree.

Another couple, Truman and Inez McCarley, died after taking shelter in their basement.

“They got sucked out of the basement and blown clear over to our side of the street,” Harper said.

Eddie Hall and his wife, Teresa, were killed as they tried to reach a storm shelter.

Charles T. Garner, 75, and his wife, Mae, 78, died inside their brick home. Peachy Cox, 67, died next door.

“Peachy’s house just got taken away, with her in it,” said councilman Anglin, Cox’s high school classmate.

The storm blew a neighbor’s body into the mayor’s three-acre pond, Gunnin said. The pond now holds five cars, a mobile home and a tractor that belonged to his son-in-law, Jerry Lolley, whose home was blown off its foundation.

Tornado sirens wailed Wednesday afternoon, but there was no place to hide. In one neighborhood, not a single home was left standing within a destruction zone five blocks long and three blocks wide.

The tornado was gone in less than five minutes, stripping bark from the trees as it roared away.

“We wasn’t ready for it,” Anglin said. “But how can you be, really?”

In addition to the 18 dead in Hackleburg, 20 died in the town of Phil Campbell, population 1,000, 12 miles northeast. Six other people died in Hamilton, about 15 miles south.

“That’s a pretty huge percentage for such little towns — it’s just devastating,” said Marion County Commissioner Don Barnwell.

In Tuscaloosa, a college town of 93,000 two hours south of Hackleburg, 39 people died in Wednesday’s storms.

Standing outside a trailer that now houses the Hackleburg police chief and his three full-time and two part-time officers, the mayor tried to figure out how the town was going to rebuild from scratch.

The town’s tax base is gone, he said — property tax, school tax, business taxes. Hackleburg will need federal and state aid to survive, Gunnin said.

Standing next to the mayor was Officer Jonathan Outz, 47, who shrugged and said, “The only thing we can do is just start all over.”

Outz had been working with little sleep since Wednesday, checking on his neighbors’ homes and chasing off looters. Someone tried twice to break into his house while he was on duty, he said. Merchandise was stolen from the wrecked Wrangler factory.

Outz found a measure of inspiration in the 1,000 or so volunteers and emergency workers who descended on the town Saturday.

Church groups and Boy Scouts grilled hot dogs and handed out cold sodas. Volunteers hauled in truckloads of ice, crates of bottled water and sacks of sandwiches, potato chips, apples and oranges. They brought generators, flashlights and batteries.

They fired up chainsaws that chewed through the massive trees that lay everywhere, filling the spring air with the scent of pine.

It was the most people Officer Outz had seen in Hackleburg since last year’s Neighbor Day, a spring festival with food and music that attracts a couple of thousand people. But that was in a different time, when the town was whole.

This year’s Neighbor Day was supposed to be Saturday, but no one needed to announce that the event had been postponed indefinitely.