One-year mark of deadly tornadoes

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- An engine turned over in the distance, the largest this state had ever seen. The trees begged "no", rocking back and forth as the breeze cut in and out like a child manically flipping a light switch.

When the wind halted, an eerie calm set in, the entire landscape holding its breath. The silence was a ruse, though, nothing more than a train picking up steam, nature gathering her coal and feeding it into her white-hot furnace. She ate up the earth and left only scraps behind as she approached, reducing acres of hearty pine into a haphazard pile of kindling wood.

Mal Moore saw it coming from his corner office on the University of Alabama campus, his deep-set frosty blue eyes growing wider as the distance between he and the violent swirl of debris evaporated. "It was a sickening feeling," the 72-year-old athletic director recalled. "It was so big, so massive."

The tornado -- an F-5, the largest of its kind -- spared the university, gliding by Moore and Bryant-Denny Stadium like a lawn mower avoiding a patch of flowers.

The rest of Tuscaloosa was not so lucky. Moore rushed downstairs in time to see the tornado cross over the interstate and head toward the mall. The path of destruction, even a year later, stands out like slick scar tissue, chapped by winds in excess of 200 mph.

By the time the storm was over and 62 tornadoes had their fill of the state, 250 were dead, more than 2,500 injured. Less than a mile from Moore's office, an entire community was leveled. "I drove toward Druid City and I saw people just running all around," Moore said, stunned by the chaos that greeted him there.

Some 10 miles away, UA basketball coach Anthony Grant was totally unaware of the situation. His wife and their three children were in their house when the storm tore through the city. Grant said he thought it was nothing more than a thunderstorm. That was, until a series of urgent text messages flooded his phone, asking if he and his players were OK.

The next day he found out why. Driving toward the university, the scene unfolded before him. "It was like a bomb exploded," he said. The randomness of the carnage struck Grant as it had so many others. From block to block, the tornado either roughed up your house or ran roughshod over it, leaving nothing but a concrete slab as a memory of what once stood there.

Over the next several days Grant and the rest of the athletic department worked in the community, handing out food and speaking with those affected by the disaster.

Moore said the events of April 27, 2011, while tragic, also served as a rallying point for everyone in the state. Former Crimson Tide players flooded into Tuscaloosa with trucks full of supplies. The entire football team worked in the neighboring town of Holt to clear debris.

"There was a sense of oneness, everybody helping each other," Moore said.

The tragedy was even enough to put a hold on the blood feud between Auburn and Alabama. Toomer's for Tuscaloosa was born only months removed from the poisoning of a pair of oak trees on the Auburn campus, allegedly by a rabid UA fan distraught at the Tigers winning the national championship.

But some nine months later, the Crimson Tide were the ones hoisting the crystal football as college football champions, due in no small part to what defined their season as a whole. The tornado gave coach Nick Saban and his team something to fight for.

"I think that deep down inside -- even though we never really talked about it, never used it as a motivating factor as a team -- every player on the team, every coach on the staff, myself included, in the back of our mind, deep down in our heart, really wanted to accomplish something of significance for our fans who were affected and our community that was affected by the tornado," Saban said.

In the year since the tornado, the university has enjoyed unparalleled athletic success. The football team won the national title, the gymnasts took home their sixth championship and the baseball and softball teams each competed in postseason play. The celebration that followed was a welcomed distraction to a backdrop that can still evoke feelings of pain and loss.

Driving through the city, not much has changed in the year that has past. Homes are still torn apart, whole lots of land waiting to be rebuilt. Families are still in shock, children yet to learn why and how something so horrible could happen. Three hundred and sixty-five days later, many are still waiting to exhale.

On the one year anniversary, many will gather where their homes once stood and remember what happened on an otherwise ordinary day in April. They'll cry and pray, laugh and hug. And at the end of it all -- because this is Alabama -- they'll say "Roll Tide" and go on their way, and back to following the Crimson Tide.