On Saturday December 16, 2000 I ran a few errands before my shift was set to begin at 1 P.M. I remember the day was warm and muggy. There was a stillness in the trees and a whisper of air underneath a blanket of low, gray clouds. When I pulled into the Tuscaloosa News parking lot giant blobs of rain began thumping down on my windshield.
I went up the back stairs entrance and into the Sports Department where a few co-workers stood watching a television. On the screen renowned weatherman James Spann was superimposed over a live shot of the sky south of Tuscaloosa. Spann, in his familiar white shirt and suspenders, seemed to be dancing with a giant gray, V-shaped figure. With his finger Spann traced the figure from top to bottom. He warned people south of Skyland Boulevard to take cover immediately.
Seeing a tornado live on the TV screen is one thing but knowing that a tornado was on the ground and perhaps killing people just a few miles from where I was standing is something else entirely.
I took my eyes off the TV screen to comment to my coworkers but they weren’t there anymore. They had disappeared down the stairs and into the basement.
My mind told me to join them. But as a photographer for a newspaper your job is to record the news, and at the very moment my job was in the densely populated subdivisions south of Tuscaloosa. It takes a lot to go against the logical, rational choice.
I headed back down to the parking lot, jumped in my car and hit 359 South toward the tornado's path. I flipped on the hand held police scanner supplied by the newspaper for staff photographers.
I eased cautiously down 359 through a torrential downpour. I passed cars parked on the shoulder. Some straight. Some sideways. Each with orange flashers blinking silent warnings in the chaos outside my windshield. As I headed south through the darkness I opened my eyes wide to possibly spot any other tornados. A vain attempt. The rain was so dense and the sky so dark only lightning flashes allowed me to see the lines marking the highway.
By the time I reached Skyland Boulevard a few minutes later the rain slacked and the clouds broke. The police scanner crackled with the strident male and female voices of police, fire, Sheriff, and ambulance service dispatchers directing their respective members on where help was needed- a vehicle overturned on Maxwell Loop Road, occupants ejected. People with injuries trapped in rubble in the Englewood Subdivision. A vehicle overturned and occupants ejected on Highway 69 in front of Hinton Place subdivision.
Up ahead three ambulances with lights flashing and sirens screaming raced single file down highway 69.
I realized one of the dispatchers on the scanner was directing the ambulances in front of me. He directed one ambulance to a certain location to assist with injuries. The ambulance directly in front of me made a quick left and disappeared down a road. Then the male voice on the scanner took a different tone and he called for another ambulance to head toward the Bear Creek Trailer Park where “things are pretty bad,” the dispatcher said. The gravity and the understatement in the dispatcher’s voice told me that’s where I needed to go.
The second ambulance turned left down Bear Creek Road and disappeared around the curve. I turned down the same road, driving at a moderate pace.
I drove until I came upon the debris field that blocked the road at the intersection of Old Marion Road and Bear Creek Road. I parked, retrieved my camera equipment from the trunk and walked toward D&G Grocery, a small store at the intersection. As I approached the store an unbelievable scene unfolded before me. The pavement disappeared under a sea of ripped metal, pieces of insulation, power lines, tree trunks, power poles, doors, tree limbs, clothing, furniture, smashed vehicles, plywood, household appliances, shattered glass and long upturned nails sticking out of splintered two-by-fours. A giant steel mobile home frame twisted and strewn with insulation was the only indication that this was once someone’s home.
Outside the store some people calmly swept and picked up debris with blank looks on their faces. Others huddled in tears hugging one another. Injured people limped away from the store toward rescue vehicles pulling up to the debris field.
I walked closer to the store and saw EMT’s applying bandages to injuries and civilians carrying people on makeshift stretchers. I saw one man walking barefooted. Blood ran out of his head and down across his eyes and mouth. I took his picture and he screamed at me, cursing. “Get that ---damn camera out of my face!” Another injured man lay on a stretcher and I continued walking toward the store. I saw a man crawl from a car that had slammed against the side of the store. He walked past me toward the paramedics. His shirt was ripped open exposing his skin gashed at his lower back.
Stunned, I walked across Old Marion Road where a lady stood in front of a pile of rubble and an upturned tree. “They were all home before it hit,” she said pointing to the rubble. “A young man and his family, they were all inside,” she said to people converging at the scene.
I walked to the rubble and looked down around my feet, afraid of what I might find. I saw children’s toys and family photographs in the shattered debris. In one photo a young man smiling in a family portrait with his two little girls and his wife holding a baby.
Perhaps ten to fifteen people were overturning debris looking for the young man and his family.
I documented the search and headed back toward the store. As I got back on the road a yell went up and one of the searchers came scrambling down the embankment with what looked like the lifeless body of a little girl. It was one of the little girls in the family photos. “Someone take her” the man screamed looking at me. I indicated he should go toward the paramedics. I began taking pictures of the man moving toward the debris-strewn intersection in front of the store. About that time a man who later became known to the world as Mike Harris took the little girl in his arms and walked toward the paramedics, picking his way carefully over the shattered two-by-fours and upturned nails. I continued taking pictures and noticed that his legs began to wobble under the weight of the seemingly lifeless girl. He approached the large steel beam blocking the road. His eyes looked at me and I could see he was about to collapse. I ran up and took the little girl in my arms and crossed over the steel beam with her. I went about 25 yards and was met by EMT Margaret Clark of the Montgomery Volunteer Fire Department from north Tuscaloosa County. Clark told me to lay the child down on a flat piece of plywood. Clark began treating the girl and Whitney Crowder moved her feet and moaned. I knew then that she was alive but unconscious.
I went back toward the mobile home to see if I could render more help. On the way I saw police and EMTs huddled around the bodies of Derek and Teresa Crowder, the girl's parents. Though the EMTs were treating him, it was quite apparent that Derek Crowder was critically injured. Derek Crowder died a few minutes later in the ambulance on the way to the hospital. The body of his 16-month old son Wesley was found in a tree the next day. Teresa, Whitney, 6, and Abby, 3, all survived.
At this point, quite in shock, I wandered down Bear Creek Road and was met by a steady stream of people walking the opposite direction away from the Bear Creek Trailer Park. I entered the park and walked toward the back. In the open field at the back of the park it looked as if an immense explosion had taken place. Some mobile homes were completely destroyed and the contents were strewn out over hundreds of yards. Others were just piles of debris on the original moorings. Some were not even there. PVC pipes sticking up out of the earth trickling out water indicated where a mobile home once stood.
I walked through the park documenting families picking through the piles of debris that was once their homes. At another home volunteers, civilians and Sheriff’s deputies formed a line atop a pile of rubble. They were trying to reach a voice crying from deep inside.
I walked back toward the entrance to the park where the police, EMTs, fire department and sheriff’s department officials had set up a temporary command station to oversee rescue operations in the park. As I walked past I noticed what looked like five or six rolled up blankets in the back of a rescue truck. I looked closer and could see pairs of feet sticking out of each blanket. Some were womens’ feet with painted toe-nails, some feet belonged to men and some were small feet sticking out of pajamas.
At that point I decided to leave. I didn’t take anymore pictures that day. I found my car and drove back to the newspaper where I edited my pictures and put them on the Associated Press wire.