BEAUREGARD, Ala. – Jordan Miller now knows the terror that comes from calling 911 and not getting help. Thankfully, he also knows how to use a chainsaw.
Miller, 17, survived the Sunday afternoon tornado that devastated a swath of his rural hometown and killed 23 people, including his best friend’s grandmother. His skills with a chainsaw helped save several lives.
Miller huddled with his friend’s family inside their double-wide mobile home on Lee Road – his friend’s sister, mom and grandmother beneath a mattress – as the twister roared through, plucking the house from the ground and tossing it like a toy.
“Ain’t nobody in Beauregard deserved this,” Miller said Monday night after helping sort through debris at the home. Sitting in a battered pickup plastered with tornado-shredded grass and mud, Miller shuddered as he remembered what happened barely 24 hours earlier.
“We heard it coming, but by the time we knew what it was, it hit us. That’s when all hell broke loose,” said Steve Whatley, 36, a refrigerator mechanic who owns the home where Miller sheltered. “It picked us up and dumped us back down 50 feet away.”
The winds were so intense, they “sucked the contacts out of my eyes,” Whatley said in disbelief.
Whatley’s wife remains hospitalized with multiple injuries, grieving the loss of her home and her mother, Vicki Braswell, 69.
More: Storm-battered Alabama could see more severe weather – and possible tornadoes – this weekend
The mobile home collapsed upon its occupants, trapping the three women beneath the mattress and a wall. Whatley, his son and Miller squirmed free and tried to lift the wall from the women. Too heavy.
Miller called 911, the phone ringing and ringing and ringing. A full minute went by. No one answered.
Panic began to set in. The women were trapped, injuries obvious. The wind had died and an eerie calm fall over the area as the temperature plummeted.
“It’s like we were all alone,” Miller said. “You call the one person you call when you need help, and nothing.”
Rain poured from the sky, soaking the men as they frantically tried to rescue the women. That’s when Miller remembered the chainsaw sitting in Whatley’s nearby shed – a shed mangled beyond recognition by a storm that snapped trees like toothpicks and sent power lines snaking across the road. He grabbed the saw from where the wind jammed it into the ground, fired it up and got to work.
“Once I saw the girls were stuck, my first thought was ‘Find the chainsaw, ’cause that’s the only thing that will work,'” Miller said.
The chainsaw made quick work of cutting the wall into smaller pieces, freeing the three women. Whatley said they tried CPR on his mother-in-law but couldn’t save her.
Miller and the others then ran down the road, helping those who were hurt, including an Alabama state trooper and neighbor who was trapped and injured. Miller said he pulled a piece of metal off the trooper and rushed off to help others. Authorities say the trooper suffered significant injuries and remains hospitalized. Rubber gloves used by medics still litter the area.
More: 6-year-old boy is youngest victims of Alabama tornado that left 23 dead
Picking up the pieces
The twister was part of a brutal storm system packing strong winds that also roared through parts of South Carolina, Georgia and Florida on Sunday. Meteorologists say it hit Lee County as an EF4 tornado with winds of 170 mph, slicing a nearly mile-wide path over at least 24 miles.
About 10,000 people live in Beauregard, which is 60 miles east of Montgomery and has a few small stores, two schools and a volunteer fire department along the main highway. Monday night, stunned residents continued their cleanup and tried to work through their grief at the loss of life and property.
Lee County Coroner Bill Harris said the 23 dead ranged in age from a 6-year-old boy to an 89-year-old man. Names and ages of victims were released at news conference Tuesday in Lee County, Alabama, held by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and local law enforcement. One man lost seven family members, officials said.
Many of the people who died were sucked from their homes and either thrown or hit by swirling debris – including one victim who died after being tossed into a parked car outside – as surviving family members watched in horror, Harris said.
More: Resident in rural Alabama community hit by twister: ‘I thought I was gone’
Whatley and his friends spent several hours Monday picking through the crushed remains of his family home. A native of the area, Whatley rubbed his eyes as he thought of what might come next. The fresh scent of pine from the broken and cut trees hung in the air as he surveyed the damage, the clean smell at stark odds with the devastation on display.
Pink fiberglass insulation torn from homes fluttered in the shattered trees. Nearby, a cabinet drawer sat alongside the road, hairbrushes and rollers apparently thrown clear by wind but left otherwise untouched. The remains of Whatley’s beige trailer slumped against a tree, its top snapped off.
“That’s my house upside down, right there,” he said with a sigh.
About 100 volunteers descended on Whatley’s property earlier in the day, combing through the rubble to find clothes, pictures, cookware, even a mattress that escaped without much damage.
Mostly gone are the trees that once surrounded Whatley’s property, snapped off by the wind. Debris remains scattered along the winding two-lane road, even though utility workers have already replaced dozens of downed power poles.
Scars for years to come
A few driveways down, Kevin Davis, 41, burned a towering pile of branches, sparks soaring high into the cold night air. Like Whatley, Davis’ home was once completely screened from passing drivers, the trees encircling a cozy compound of buildings. Davis’ property suffered little damage, even though it’s only about one-third of a mile away from where Whatley’s once stood.
“Yesterday, I was scared for the first time in my life,” said Davis, a crane operator, as he watched the bonfire.
The Sanford Middle School parking lot became Harris’ makeshift morgue, where coroners and investigators brought 22 bodies. The 23rd body was that of a severely injured child who was rushed to a hospital, where he died, Harris said.
As a cold rain fell, Harris watched as morticians and drivers wheeled the bodies from a refrigerated trailer into hearses and minivans, each covered carefully with a blue blanket, workers’ breath steaming in the near-freezing temperatures.
Harris called upon Alabama’s S-MORT volunteers – coroners and funeral home workers – to assist with the body recovery, identification and cause of death. He then sat with the families for about four hours Monday afternoon and evening, formalizing IDs and explaining how their loved ones died.
He said many family members knew their kin had died, simply because so many families were together on a warm Sunday afternoon when the storm hit.
“I thought I could handle this, but I found out right quick it was beyond my scope,” said Harris, 64. Still, he’s already focused on the future. This community, he said, has shown “phenomenal” strength and resilience.
Miller and Whatley acknowledge their hometown will look very different for decades to come.
Even once the physical damage has been repaired or removed, Beauregard will bear the scars from this disaster. Family celebrations will be irrevocably altered, schools will be missing kids, and churches will memorialize parishioners who died.
“I wish I could just go to sleep and wake up in a few years,” Miller said.