An Alabama engine mechanic took refuge in a shipping container as a tornado from a violent storm decimated his shop and killed two of his neighbours along its destructive path across Alabama and Georgia.
The harrowing stories of David Hollon and other survivors of Thursday’s storm are emerging as residents comb through the wreckage wrought by tornadoes and blistering winds that have led to the deaths of at least nine people.
In Alabama’s rural Autauga County, where at least seven people have died, Hollon and his workers saw a massive tornado churning toward them. They needed to get to shelter – immediately.
Hollon said they ran into a metal shipping container near the back of his garage because the container had been anchored to the floor with concrete. Once inside, Hollon began frantically dialling his neighbour on the phone. But as they heard the garage being ripped apart by the storm, the call kept going to voice mail.
The storm passed and they emerged, only to find the body of his neighbour in the street, he said. Another neighbour up the road had also died, a family member said.
“I guess we did a lot better than most. We got damage, but we’re still here,” Hollon, 52, said in an interview Saturday as he walked amidst the remains of his garage, stepping through a field littered with battered cars, shattered glass, snapped tree branches, splintered wood and other debris.
Leighea Johnson, a 54-year-old cafeteria worker who also lives in Autauga County, stood among the strewn remains of her trailer home. She pointed to a tall pile of rubble that she identified as her bedroom, bathroom and kitchen.
A swing set she had in her backyard was now across the street, mangled among some trees. Her outdoor trampoline had been wrapped around another set of trees in a neighbour’s front yard.
“The trailer should be here, and now it’s not,” Johnson said, pointing to a slab covered in debris, “And it is all over the place now.”
The storm brought powerful twisters and winds to Alabama and Georgia that uprooted trees, sent mobile homes airborne, derailed a freight train, flipped cars, cracked utility poles and downed power lines, leaving thousands without electricity. Suspected tornado damage was reported in at least 14 counties in Alabama and 14 counties in Georgia, according to the National Weather Service.
Autauga County officials said the tornado had winds of at least 136 mph (218 kph) and levelled damage consistent with an EF3, two steps below the most powerful category of twister. County authorities have said at least a dozen people were hospitalized and about 40 homes were destroyed or seriously damaged, including mobile homes that were launched into the air.
Residents described chaotic scenes as the storm spun toward them. People rushed into shelters, bathtubs and sheds as the winds bore down. In one case, a search crew found five people, trapped but unharmed, inside a storm shelter after a wall from a nearby house fell onto it.
Downtown Selma sustained severe damage before the worst of the weather moved across Georgia south of Atlanta. No deaths were reported in Selma.
Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp said the damage was felt across his state. Some of the worst reports emerged from Troup County near the Georgia-Alabama line, where more than 100 homes were hit.
Kemp said a state transportation department worker was killed while responding to storm damage. A 5-year-old child who was riding in a vehicle was killed by a falling tree in Georgia’s Butts County, authorities said. At least 12 people were treated at a hospital in Spalding County, south of Atlanta, where the weather service confirmed at least two tornadoes struck.
Johnson, the cafeteria worker in Autauga County, said she was at work when she learned the storm would pass directly over her home. She quickly warned her daughter, who was with her two-year-old grandson at home.
“I called my daughter and said, ‘You do not have time to get out, you’ve got to get somewhere now,”’ Johnson said, her voice cracking. “And she said, ’I’m getting in the tub. If the house is messed up I’ll be in the tub area.”
The call dropped. Johnson kept calling back. When she finally reconnected with her daughter, Johnson said she told her: “The house is gone, the house is gone.”
Her daughter and grandson had some cuts and bruises but were otherwise fine after a trip to the emergency room, Johnson said.
“I brought her home and tried not to let go of her after that,” Johnson said. “I lost a lot of things materialistically and I don’t have insurance but I don’t even care, because my child is all right.
“That’s really all that matters to me.”