Monday, June 6, 2011

Tuscaloosa Tornado, Part Three

Derek opened the door, and we stepped out into the madness. It was odd perhaps but I made sure the door was locked behind us. The sky was gray. I could hear sirens in the distance and people screaming or crying. Derek suggested splitting up to search the top floor, meet on the other side and then continue to the ground floor. I vetoed that plan. I wasn’t letting him out of my sight. For the next few hours, I only cared about one thing in the world - and that was Derek. His life and well being became my reason for functioning. Without him or without having the purpose of protecting him, I would have fallen into hysteria. I knew that the structure was unstable, it could collapse and I wanted to make sure I was with him to pull him back or dig him out. I knew we would find people in varying stages of death. I would not let him live through that alone. I knew he was frustrated with me - we could do more good separately. But I honestly didn’t give a shit about anyone else. I saw them around me, some crying, some bleeding. But I didn’t care. There was only Derek.

We began our search. Walking along what used to be a balcony, we called into each apartment we passed. “Are you alive? Do you need help?” No replies. We continued on. We stumbled over brick columns and fallen walls. Wrought iron railings, wooden beams, insulation, and so on. Half way down the building we came across a man with a gash on this leg. He was panicky. Derek spoke to him calmly while I dug a towel from my pack. Derek cared for the man while I looked around; calling out to people who either weren’t there or couldn’t answer. I think this was the first time we heard that a second storm was coming.

Derek sent the man down to the courtyard and we continued on. Three quarters of the way down the side of the building, we found two college guys. They were unhurt, but unprepared. One boy was wearing flip-flops while the other was trying to dig out his dog. I figured the dog was dead, so I didn’t offer to help. I remember now, we did know about the next storm and I was more concerned with getting Derek to safety than I was concerned with some guy’s dead dog. I wanted to get out of there and I didn’t really care if they chose to follow or not. As I was turning to leave them behind, I heard the dog bark - the kid picked the dog up out of the rubble. The dog was fine. My heart hurt a bit that I would have left the poor thing behind. That’s not really like me. I cried one time because a bird flew into my windshield. Why didn’t I care about that dog? We guided the kids through a safe-ish path to get them to the courtyard. I pulled a long-sleeved t-shirt from a downed tree to make a leash for the dog. Derek ran upstairs to grab some shoes for the kid. We told the guys we’d meet them back there in a bit, and we’d all try to get to safety together. Hopefully between the lot of us, someone would have a working car. I doubted that, but that was the plan.

My memory is blurry here. For some reason, Derek and I walked across the courtyard to the other side of the structure. One of the college kids was with us I think? When we got there, we found a family trapped on the second floor. They were mostly okay - the mother had a big bleeding gash on her back. But they were alive and needed a way down. Derek and I went to see if one of the back stairwells was open. The stairwell itself was filled with debris, but it looked safe enough. That’s about when we heard a girl screaming for help.

We climbed through the breezeway by the stairs to find her. Some of the junk was up to my waist, but we got through to the back parking lot. She was back there, and when she saw us she screamed for us to hurry. Someone was dying. Derek said he was going as fast as he could. I told him to be careful. His movements were getting less steady. I tried to catch up to him so I could grab him if need be, but he was too fast. He got free of the rubble first and went over to the girl. She was standing with two young men. They all appeared to be college aged. As I approached, I noticed another girl lying on the ground.

This part of the story, I’m leaving out. It belongs to the girl’s family & close friends now. She did not survive. We covered her body, and left her remains in the care of a narcotics officer who showed up shortly afterwards.

I’ve never seen death first hand before. My father died a few years ago true, but I’ve never seen someone die until now. I’m not sure what I expected to feel, but I did expect to feel something. Anything. Instead, I felt nothing. It wasn’t until much later that I let myself understand that this girl had parents, friends, a life before her death. I guess I couldn’t process it at the time. I was still only concerned with Derek. Was he okay? What did he need? Why didn’t I split up when he asked me to? I would have been the one to find her then, and he would never have had to see that. I could have protected him if only I had listened. And maybe if I would have gotten to her sooner I could have actually helped her.

We left her then and went to find others who we could still help.

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