TUSCALOOSA, Ala. - Chelsea Thrash remembers what everyone used to say about her favorite college town.
“Tornadoes come to Tuscaloosa,” the saying went, “but they never hit Tuscaloosa - always the outskirts.”
Tornado sirens sang April 27 as Thrash, a junior at the University of Alabama majoring in biology, studied for a final exam at her boyfriend’s second-floor apartment on 27th Street.
An outbreak of 60 tornados would rip through the state that day, killing more than 250 people.
Following the events on a local television station, Thrash saw one of them roaring right through the center of Tuscaloosa.
She ran to the bathroom to take cover.
“It sounded like a jet engine, and I felt all the atmospheric pressure pulling down,” Thrash said. “I saw the door fly open. Then, I blacked out.”
When she awoke, Thrash lay in the apartment’s courtyard looking up at the dark sky.
Debris was all around her. Most of the apartment buildings had turned to rubble.
She couldn’t move her legs.
Strangers placed Thrash on a makeshift backboard, loaded her into a pickup truck and transported her to a nearby triage. The next day, she underwent 12-hour surgery to repair a shattered L1 vertebra and receive treatment for internal bleeding and skin damage.
She felt lucky to be alive.
“People to the right and left of us died,” Thrash said of the neighbors. “One of them was my sorority sister.”
The healing process
Alabama had never seen a tornado like this one, an EF-4 level twister that carried winds up to 190 mph and left a 5.9-mile path of destruction through Tuscaloosa’s city limits. Fifty-two citizens died. More than 1,200 residential structures were destroyed.
In less than six minutes, more than 7,000 people became unemployed.
A drive through town, more than six months later, reveals Hurricane Katrina-like devastation. Dirt fields dot neighborhoods where houses and trees once stood. Severely beaten places of business on busy McFarland Boulevard sit isolated and empty.
Kirk McNair, the editor of Bama Magazine, passes the city’s affected areas every day on his way to work.
“I still shake my head,” he said. “I don’t know where all those people are living.”
Never far away, Bryant-Denny Stadium rises in the distance.
The home of Alabama football fills with 101,000-plus spectators when the Crimson Tide plays at home. Its role as the community’s epicenter has never seemed so magnificent.
“Every time you have a graduation or school starts or we have a football game,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said, “it’s kind of a signal of things getting back to normal.”
The Alabama campus went untouched by the April 27 tornado, but six students lost their lives.
Rather than simply provide an escape for victims on Saturdays, Crimson Tide football players like linebacker Courtney Upshaw and offensive lineman Barrett Jones got out in the community to help raise money by signing autographs or lend a hand in on-site cleanup efforts.
Nick’s Kids, the organization Saban and his wife Terry created to promote children, family, teacher and student causes, has partnered with several organizations to rebuild homes in Holt, Ala., a nearby farming community that suffered some of the most significant damage.
Even people from “rival” schools have helped out.
Several student organizations from LSU came together under the name “Tigers for Tide” and volunteered during their fall break to work alongside Alabama students. The group spent Oct. 13 assisting in the construction of a new home and interacting with community members.
“We’re very proud to be associated with a group of people in the United States who have contributed to this community,” Saban said, “but I think everybody needs to understand there’s still a lot to do and there’s going to need to be a lot more commitment in the future to get our community back where it once was. It might take several years to do it.”
The reminders are everywhere.
In a field across 25th Street from Carson Tinker’s old house, a memorial celebrates the life of Ashley Harrison. Flowers, cards and pictures surround a wooden cross.
Tinker is the long snapper on the Alabama football team, a second-year starter. Harrison, who died of a broken neck, was his girlfriend.
Their two dogs are buried nearby.
Thrash stood with Sloan McCrary, her boyfriend, Tuesday afternoon on the edge of the dirt lot where McCrary’s apartment complex once stood.
She has gone from a wheelchair to a walker to a cane. She finished six months of rehab earlier this week.
She said by the tornado’s one-year anniversary, she hopes to be walking on her own again.
Friday, she and McCrary planned to celebrate her 21st birthday. Saturday, they planned to celebrate Alabama football.
The Crimson Tide has LSU in town for college football’s first regular-season 1-2 matchup in five years. The whole community is abuzz.
“It’s all I’m thinking about this week,” McCrary, a senior majoring in political science, said. “I can’t even think about schoolwork.”
Thrash and McCrary will take their usual place in the Alabama student section.
“Going back to games,” Thrash said, “it’s reassuring to see how fast the community can come together.”
“And move on,” McCrary added.
“Yeah, move on,” Thrash said. “But never forget.”