I want to take a break today from the usual postings about work and baby.
Today is the 3 year anniversary of the worst day of my entire life.
It’s not something I feel particularly comfortable sharing…actually, I despise talking about it. But…I also feel like it’s something that others can learn from. Because you just never know.
Three years ago, I woke up early in the morning and headed to class at the University of Alabama. I was excited because my car was finally done at the mechanic and my dad was coming to Tuscaloosa to be with me when we picked it up. I know NOTHING about cars. He wanted to make sure everything was all good under the hood. (I was involved in an accident a month before in which somebody ran a red light…needless to say, our cars could not occupy the same space at the same time…) In any case, I went to class and then met Dad at the rental car place to drop off the trusty little Toyota that had been my ride for the past month. We headed to the mechanic and picked up the Focus, newly painted and shiny. We grabbed lunch and talked about the crazy weather in Alabama that day. Some tornadoes had touched down in a few cities, nothing out of the ordinary, Alabama is tornado central. He mentioned the weather was supposed to be unpleasant later.
Dad: It’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when. You should come back to Birmingham with me.
Me: Dad, I can’t, I have class at 5 this afternoon. Besides, a little rain never hurt anyone.
Dad: I’m telling you, I think it’s supposed to be more than a little rain…are you sure you don’t want to come back with me?
Me: I have class. We’re turning in a big project. Don’t worry about it.
Fast forward a couple hours – I’m sitting in the basement of the education library, working on the final details of our project with my partner. As we add finishing touches to our masterpiece, we talk about the weather. It had been a crazy day for Alabama…some big tornadoes had touched down…some bad things had happened. We half joked about Alabama canceling class and took a break every once in a while to go outside and stare at the sky. It looked pretty normal…a few clouds swirling around, a bit windy, humid. About 45 minutes before class was scheduled to start, we received an email from our professor that said she was calling it and for everybody to go home. Gleeful to have a break from the three hour class that week, my partner and I parted ways.
I called a friend and asked if he wanted to come over to my apartment to “ride out the weather.” I picked him up and while heading to my place, the radio seemed much more serious than we were used to.
“A large, wedge shaped tornado has touched down in Mississippi and is crossing the Alabama border.”
Well, at least we won’t die alone…my friend and I continued to banter back and forth. If you live in Alabama for any extended period of time, you grow pretty immune to bad weather. Besides…we’re 20 something college kids with our whole lives ahead of us. Bad things happen, sure, but not to us.
My husband, who at the time was my boyfriend, was back in Texas. He attended Texas A&M University. I shot him a text that read, “Radio said something about a wedge shaped tornado.” He didn’t respond. He was busy with ROTC things. That was the last time I would communicate with him for quite a while.
When my friend and I arrived at my apartment, we gathered my jack russell, Chloe Abigail, and headed for a quick walk around the grounds. The sky was a little darker.
Back in the living room, we kicked off our shoes and turned on the local news. Our weatherman, James Spann, immediately filled the screen, his jacket off, his shirt sleeves rolled up, his suspenders visible. After I logged into facebook, I posted a status: You know it’s serious when you can see James Spann’s suspenders! Haha!”
My friend and I chatted in between Spann’s updates.
“If you are in Tuscaloosa, you need to take shelter now. Particularly if you live along Kauloosa Avenue.”
Kauloosa Avenue? I glanced at my friend and he was glancing back. That was right down the road.
I cleared my throat, “maybe we should put some cushions in the bathroom…just to be safe?” I phrased it as a question. We pulled off the couch cushions and tossed them into the bathtub of my second floor apartment and settled back on the living room floor.
Dad called me and I picked up my cell phone. You need to go downstairs. I don’t want to go downstairs, Dad, I already had this discussion with Mom earlier. I don’t care, you need to go downstairs, you shouldn’t be on the top floor. Dad, I don’t know my neighbors downstairs, it really isn’t a big deal.
Nothing’s going to happen, Dad.
Five minutes later, we heard a tornado siren.
A minute later, the power went out.
30 seconds later, we heard screaming.
I grabbed Chloe and we ran to the bathroom, cellphone still in my hand and connected to my dad. I was still closing the door when the apartment began to shake.
We jumped in the bathtub, cushions above us, praying and praying.
People say a tornado sounds like a train…but I think it sounded more like thunder that wouldn’t stop…and glass breaking…and banging…
It was over in 30 seconds. We sat in the bathtub. I looked at my friend and he looked back, eyes wide. It was so quiet.
“Baby? Morgan?” My dad was still on the phone. I told him we were ok, but that I could see light around the bathroom door. Dang, I think the front door blew open, Dad, I’m going to have quite a mess to clean up in the living room.
We still didn’t realize what had happened.
We were so clueless. (A therapist told me I needed to stop using the word “stupid.”)
I opened the bathroom door.
Dad. It’s gone. Everything’s gone. Dad?! The apartment. Oh my god, Dad, my apartment is destroyed. Everything…it’s gone. Collapsed. Oh god, the people…Dad, my friend’s apartment collapsed. Dad? Dad, I have to go. We have to get down. The apartment might fall through. Call you later.
Clutching Chloe, we began the arduous task of crawling out of the apartment. I was barefoot. My right leg plunged through the bricks and glass and wood that used to comprise my living room wall. Dammit. I pulled myself out and continued onward. This would be my only physical injury, making me so much more lucky than others. We made it out of the apartment and onto the concrete landing that used to be the walkway. To get into the courtyard, we hiked over the feet of debris caught in the stairwell. Once in the courtyard, it was chaos. It was destruction. It was Hell. There were bodies and crying and blood and glass and mud and nails and a baby blanket and a backpack in a tree and a crowd of hundreds walking down the street and a shaky puppy licking the tears off my cheeks. We were scared animals. Someone started whispering about another tornado. The whisper turned into a yell. People started running. Why are you running, please tell me, why are you running, is another one coming, where do we go, we can’t hide, everything is gone, oh my god, oh my god, oh my god.
It turns out, we had just survived an EF4 tornado, which would pick up even more steam and become an EF5 before leaving Tuscaloosa county.
What does that movie Twister call an F5? The finger of God?
It took hours for my parents to reach me.
It took months for me to return to Tuscaloosa.
It will take my whole life to fully come to terms with that day.
I hope to raise awareness with this story. Have a plan. Have a safe place. Have important documents available. Have a suitcase with clothes and dog food and cat food and leashes and whatever else you might need for your little family for a couple days. For the love of all things holy, have shoes on your feet. Be prepared. It is better to take weather events seriously and be wrong, than to treat it too casually and be VERY wrong.
Do not take your life for granted. You never know when it may be altered forever.
I took a video when I got out of the apartment and into the courtyard. To see, click the link: https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?v=2001390842452&l=8748419090534351049