Tornado Terror

We all receive forwarded stuff from the Internet. Most of us probably trash the majority of it, but sometimes we feel the need to pass it on. What follows is a perfect case in point for me. 
It’s the personal account of a survivor of the devastating tornado in Alabama last month. The author prefaced it by asking readers to “please take this with a sense of humor and recognize God’s influence.” I’m not, however, posting it to comment in any way on his belief in the divine intervention of a supreme being. With or without that component, this is a fascinating tale.

With only minor editing, here is “There and Back Again . . . A Hobbit’s Tale” by Randy Robbins

Saturday, April 30, 2011 at 1:00 pm:

This is my experience during the tornado that swept through Alberta and Tuscaloosa in as much detail as I can muster with the medication I am on. I need to put this down for therapeutic reasons and for others to read because I can’t keep re-telling this story.

If you are to take anything away from my account, it is two things: 1) God saved so many people that day including me, and 2) disasters bring out the absolute best in some people . . . and the absolute worst in others. I am going to write down the events exactly as I remember them while I still can. I will add details that I have gathered from accounts by my neighbor and judging from materials stuck inside my body. I would also like to point out that any person I don’t reference by name (such as neighbor) I had not really met before. Here goes:

At roughly 4:00 pm on April 27, 2011, I was sitting in FI 414 class listening to presentation on industries when the severe weather alarms went off and the University cancelled classes for the rest of the day. I considered staying on campus, but I saw everyone else leaving and decided I would be fine going to my apartment. This is probably the biggest regret of my life purely for the fact that I let the actions of others sway my opinion and nearly kill me.

I walked to my truck, parked roughly a mile away near the Coliseum. Halfway there, I knew we were in for a storm when the wind knocked my backpack off my shoulder. I made it to my truck and drove to my apartment, located at the intersection of University Blvd. and 25th Avenue East in Alberta City, AL. During my drive, I received several texts from both my older and younger sisters warning me that some severe storms were heading to my area. Naturally, I discounted them as hysteria and paranoia and continued on my merry way.

I got to my apartment at roughly 4:30 pm and popped a frozen pizza in the oven for dinner. I turned on my computer and pulled up my assignments for the night. As I began working through my homework, I got some more texts from friends warning me of the weather. I assured them all that I would be perfectly safe in my sturdy apartment. The timer for the pizza went off so I got it out of the oven and took two slices to my room. I hadn’t eaten much for lunch so I was ravenous. I ate nearly the entire pizza. This small detail probably saved my life. More on that later.

The power in my apartment went out at roughly 5:00 pm and so I opened the shades on my window to read and look outside. I noticed the trees behind my apartment swaying at a steep angle. Then I decided I should probably close all windows and doors. Just then my buddy Sean Philips texted me that I should find cover. I was coming up with a clever retort about how paranoid he was being when my ears popped really hard and I heard what sounded like a train outside my window. I had watched enough news to know this meant a tornado.

I jumped into my closet and slammed the door shut. I felt the whole building shaking so I grabbed the door knob and held it shut with all my strength. Then I heard tearing and ripping noises which had to be my back wall tearing away. At this point, I want to point out that if any of these events had occurred slightly differently or in a different order, I would have been buried.

Anyway, the back wall tore away from the building and the door to my closet began shaking open and I kept pulling it back closed. After a couple seconds of this struggle, the door and I were sucked out of the closet and through the back wall. I never rose more than a couple feet off the ground, but judging from memories of where things were, I flew about 40 feet total. The winds flung me from the back wall into the chain link fence 10-15 feet behind my apartment with enough force to leave bruises of the chain links in my side. It then flung me back into some piles of rubble where I was then rolled around on the ground for about 15 seconds before it subsided slightly. I looked up from my prone position and I was lying on a tile floor and I could see my neighbor lying on top of her baby trying to shield her. I also heard myself screaming and realized I had been screaming the entire time.

The winds were beginning to pick up again, so I ran over to my neighbor and threw myself on top of them to try and shield them. Somewhere along the way I stepped on a piece of wood with enough force to shove a 3-inch piece through the bottom of my foot. Please take note, this was not an act of heroism, but desperation. As far as my concussed mind could think, I truly believed during that split second that we three were the only beings left in a world that had dissolved around us. I acted to try and preserve the only other people left in this Hell so I wouldn’t be alone if I survived.

I laid on top of her and immediately the winds picked up again. I was bombarded with (judging from wounds and what is still imbedded in my back at the time of this writing) glass, roofing shingles, pieces of wood, and a BIC pen. LOL. I know this for sure because I pulled it out of my side when I stood up.

The storm finally dissipated after roughly 10-20 seconds and I slowly stood up. Due to adrenaline and shock, I did not notice any of the injuries I suffered. However, I did notice that I could barely hear anything and my ears were bleeding from the pressure of the storm (the earlier popping that alerted me of the tornado). Everyone’s ears were. The poor baby’s ears were pouring blood.

At this point, I surveyed my body. My jeans, watch, glasses, and shirt had been ripped off. Somehow, I was still holding my iPhone in my right hand. Just then a call came through. It was my older sister, Christina. I could only stare at it in disbelief before answering. I don’t remember our conversation, but she later relayed it to me. Here it is as she remembers it:

Christy: Randy? Randy?

Me: Kiki! My apartment; it’s gone. The baby is bleeding. I lost my glasses. My foot is bleeding bad. There are people stuck. I have to go.

I then hung up the phone because people were screaming from within piles of rubble. I limped over to the nearest pile where a neighbor’s head was sticking out from beneath a section of roof. I pulled off a couple small pieces of wood before collapsing. I think I blacked out for a couple seconds. Next thing I remember, he was digging himself out. He came to check on me and almost slipped in the puddle of blood and water at my feet. He tore off his shirt and tied it around my foot (I had no shoes or socks on before it hit). He helped me stand and we looked around at the damage.

I saw my childhood friend Austin and his girlfriend Mary and their dog that live six doors down from me. They were standing in their bathroom. I yelled to them and then began trying to crawl out. At some point I believe a neighbor (maybe Mary) threw me a woman’s loafer which I put on my left foot to protect it. It was a left shoe that was about 2 sizes too small but I barely noticed.

I couldn’t walk because of my foot so I threw some sections of my couch across the short wall of sharp debris between me and what was left of the parking lot and began crawling on my hands and knees. Due to the composition and layout of the debris, I was forced to crawl on my belly under my truck to get out. It was parked in my living room and totaled.

I finally reached the parking lot covered in blood, dirt, oil, and sheetrock dust. I lent a neighbor my phone, then spotted my friend and neighbor Brandon and hobbled to him to check him out. Amazingly, he was unhurt. We both heard someone yelling that another storm was about to touch down in the area so we immediately took off to find shelter. I lost track of everyone else. Austin and Mary helped dig out some neighbors.

Brandon lent me his shoulder and we began walking (me hopping) to the Piggly Wiggly down the street. We heard that they were not letting people in, so we detoured to the local Save-A-Lot and asked the manager if he was letting people in. He let us in. I sat on the nearest checkout station while Brandon ran to find first aid supplies. He returned with peroxide, paper towels, and scotch tape.

I used what little Spanish I know to try to cheer up a small Hispanic child that was crying near me. I began to feel very faint from blood loss so I started chugging as much Gatorade as possible to keep my blood sugar up so I don’t pass out. The pizza I ate earlier also probably kept me awake and alive. Brandon began cleaning and wrapping my foot. We then saw that there was still wood sticking out. We wrapped paper towels and tape over it to try to stop the blood loss.

I then began to feel a slight itchy, burning sensation on my back, so I asked him to take a look. He said that I had a few cuts on my back. I’m glad he didn’t tell me the extent to which it was messed up. We stayed in the store and waited for the next tornado to touch down. I sat on a rolling cart so that Brandon could quickly wheel me to the back if it came.

We’re getting ready to run to the back and lock ourselves inside the freezer. I told Brandon to gather some food and water in case we were trapped inside the store. I felt prepared, so I tried to slow my breathing and heart rate to slow blood flow. Some time later (I began losing track of time and events) we saw people run into the bank to steal money and cops arrested them. This pissed us all off for obvious reasons. Brandon and I walked (and hopped) up to the Texaco because we heard they had set up a triage center there.

We got there and they turned us away, so we went back to the store. I was exhausted from blood loss and hopping everywhere. I should point out that I was hopping down the street wearing only my silver cross necklace and boxers and the homemade bandages on my foot. It’s funny now, not so much then.

We stayed in the store for a while. A woman who was in the store earlier came running back and led a cop to where I was lying. I owe her and Brandon both my life. I would have bled out within a couple hours if that cop hadn’t found me. He called in a truck and I jumped in the back and they drove me to the hospital. I asked for pen in the bed of the truck so I could write my name and medical info and mom’s phone number on my body in case I passed out again and couldn’t talk to nurses. We got to the hospital and I was assigned a randomized name for legal reasons. I asked over and over again for them to call my mom to check on Jessica because she was home alone in Homewood and I heard a storm passed by there.

I will never forget the nurse who helped me, Nurse Jackie. She checked up on me throughout my X-Rays and CT scans and stitches over the next 6-8 hours. I felt like I was her only patient although she likely had scores of them. I plan on thanking her personally as soon as I can travel.

This is where the story ends. I am just one person among hundreds, possibly thousands of people hurt in a city where neighbors and strangers alike risked their own lives to save each other. I tried to help those I could any way I could, and I owe my life to many others.

Thank you, Nurse Jackie for consoling me while I was alone for those many hours. Thank you, Brandon for lending me a friendly shoulder and thinking only of others. Thank you, Lady from Save-A-Lot for finding me a ride to the hospital. Thank you, Mom for forcing Delta airlines to let you off of a plane preparing to take off. Thank you, Jimmy and Jessica for looking throughout the hospital (and morgue) for me for hours before finding me. Thank you to the men and women of the National Guard, fire departments, and police departments around the state. Many of us wouldn’t have made it without y’all.

And, of course, thank you, GOD. Even as the clothes and material possessions were ripped from my body, your symbol stayed firmly around my neck and in my heart.

It is long, but I can already feel a massive weight lifted from my chest. This note has done its job. If you are reading this, you are my friend and share the honor of calling me “pal.”

Top of my foot

Bottom of my foot

What used to be apartments and my truck


Apartments and my truck

More debris/different angle of apartments

Another view of apartments and
more debris

More debris from apartments

My back (shingles, glass, etc.)

My side (hit fence, hit by various stuff, including pen)

Apartments are along the top left side.

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