MARBURY, Ala. (AP) — An Alabama engine mechanic took refuge in a shipping container when a tornado ahead of a violent storm decimated his business and killed two of his neighbors in its destructive path through Alabama and Georgia.
The harrowing stories of David Hollon and other survivors of Thursday’s storm emerge as residents comb through the debris wrought by tornadoes and violent winds that have killed at least nine people.
In Alabama’s rural Autauga County, where at least seven people were killed, Hollon and his workers saw a massive tornado headed their way. They had to go to a shelter – now.
Hollon said they encountered a metal container near the back of his garage because the container was anchored to the ground with concrete. Once inside, Hollon began frantically phoning his neighbor. But when they heard the storm tear the garage apart, the call continued to voice mail.
The storm passed and they emerged, only to find his neighbor’s body in the street, he said. Another neighbor down the street also died, a family member said.
“I think we did a lot better than most. We’ve been damaged, but we’re still here,” Hollon, 52, said in an interview Saturday as he walked through the remains of his garage and stepped through a field littered with battered cars, shattered glass, fallen branches, splintered wood and other debris.
Leighea Johnson, a 54-year-old cafeteria worker who also lives in Autauga County, stood among the scattered remains of her trailer. She pointed to a high pile of rubble that she identified as a bedroom, bathroom, and kitchen.
A swing set she had in her backyard was now across the street, tattered between a few trees. Her outdoor trampoline was wrapped around another stand of trees in a neighbor’s front yard.
“The trailer should be here, and now it’s not,” Johnson said, pointing to a debris-covered slab. “And now he’s everywhere.”
The storm brought strong vortices and winds to Alabama and Georgia that uprooted trees, blew up RVs, derailed a freight train, overturned cars, snapped utility poles and downed power lines, and left thousands without power. Probable tornado damage has been reported in at least 14 counties in Alabama and 14 counties in Georgia, according to the National Weather Service.
Early Sunday, President Joe Biden declared a major disaster in Alabama and ordered federal assistance to supplement recovery efforts in affected areas.
Autauga County officials said the tornado had winds of at least 135 mph and damage comparable to an EF3, two steps below the strongest tornado category. County authorities said at least a dozen people were hospitalized and about 40 homes were destroyed or badly damaged, including mobile homes that were shot up.
Local residents described chaotic scenes as the storm swept toward them. People rushed to shelters, bathtubs and sheds when the wind died down. In one instance, a search team found five people trapped but unharmed in a storm shelter after a wall of a nearby home fell on it.
Downtown Selma was badly damaged before the worst of the weather descended on Georgia south of Atlanta. No deaths were reported in Selma.
Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp said the damage was being felt throughout his state. Some of the worst reports came from Troup County, near the Georgia-Alabama line, where more than 100 homes were hit.
Kemp said a state Department of Transportation worker was killed while responding to storm damage. A 5-year-old child riding in a vehicle was killed by a falling tree in Butts County, Georgia, authorities said. At least 12 people were treated at a Spalding County hospital south of Atlanta, where the Weather Service confirmed at least two tornadoes.
Johnson, the Autauga County cafeteria worker, said she was at work when she learned the storm was heading straight over her home. She quickly warned her daughter, who was home with her 2-year-old grandson.
“I called my daughter and said, ‘You don’t have time to get out, you have to go somewhere,'” Johnson said, his voice cracking. “And she said, ‘I’m getting in the tub. When the house is trashed, I’ll be in the tub area.”
The call was canceled. Johnson kept calling. 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 a few cuts and bruises, but otherwise were fine after a visit to the emergency room, Johnson said.
“I brought her home and then tried not to let go of her,” Johnson said. “I’ve lost a lot of things materially and I don’t have insurance, but I don’t care because my child is fine.
“That’s really all that matters to me.”