ShareThis Page
23 tornado deaths ‘gut wrenching’ in tiny Alabama community | TribLIVE.com
U.S./World

23 tornado deaths ‘gut wrenching’ in tiny Alabama community

Associated Press
846964_web1_846964-5b5cd4c1afa54d6193190c810035f354
AP
In this Wednesday, March 6, 2019 photo, Rusty Sowell, pastor at Providence Baptist Church, speaks to volunteers organizing donations at the church in Beauregard, Ala. Dealing with the dead became a huge task in a rural Alabama community where nearly two dozen people died in a tornado outbreak. The county coroner, Bill Harris, set up a temporary command post and performed post-mortem exams. He and Sowell then held 17 separate meetings with relatives of the 23 people who died.
846964_web1_846964-7d16cfa11d174da2a5afe92d8d03c610
AP
FILE - In this Tuesday March 5, 2019 file photo, Lee County Coroner Bill Harris hands out the list of names of people killed by the Sunday tornado in Beauregard, Ala. Dealing with the dead became a huge task in a rural Alabama community where nearly two dozen people died in a tornado outbreak. Bill Harris set up a temporary command post and performed post-mortem exams in the parking lot of a middle school.

BEAUREGARD, Ala. — With nearly two dozen people killed in a tornado outbreak that shattered a rural community in east Alabama, notifying the families of the dead was a huge, gut-wrenching task, done in the privacy of a country church.

Pastor Rusty Sowell, with the county coroner behind him, would put his hand on the door to each Sunday school classroom at Providence Baptist Church, where dozens of family members were told to gather. Inside, people awaited word on whether loved ones were dead or alive.

First they told one family that a relative was dead, and then another. Then there was another and another in a string of heart-shattering gatherings where people heard the worst possible news.

Sowell had preached about the mystery of death and the need for God. Now he focused on the faces of the survivors.

“It was surreal. It was sacred, if I can use that term,” he said.

There were 23 dead in all — 17 meetings with relatives. His eyes reddened Wednesday at the haunting memory of simply entering room after room after room.

“The toughest part was opening the door and looking in the eyes of that family member who was hoping against hope that it wasn’t their loved one that had died,” said Sowell, pastor of Providence Baptist. “I would say to myself, ‘Just breathe, just breathe.’”

Coroner Bill Harris’ radio had started crackling with a rising death count within minutes after an EF4 tornado ripped apart the Beauregard community in the deadliest U.S. tornado in almost six years. It was the largest of at least 11 twisters that struck the Southeast on Sunday, weather officials said.

First came confirmation of three deaths, he said, then five, then seven. As the number rose into the double digits, he began setting up a temporary command post at a middle school and called for help.

Once the dead were gathered from fields and roads and splintered homes, each was given a post-mortem examination in a portable autopsy facility set up in the school’s parking lot. The dead were identified either through ID cards, tattoos, scars or photos.

“We double-checked it and we doubled-checked it again,” Harris said.

Then came the process of notifying the next of kin at Providence Baptist, just a few miles from where the tornado scoured the ground, littering gullies with pieces of homes and stripping ridges bare of trees.

Many families already knew the worst, Sowell said, but it was still tough for them to hear the words.

Harris said it was easiest to let Sowell, an old friend, enter each room first, followed by another pastor, himself and then a sheriff’s investigator. As coroner, Harris said, he’s learned to let a pastor or someone else lead the way.

“When you’re the first one in the room they know it’s bad,” he said.

Some cried, Sowell said, and many were in shock. Some leaned on each other; many leaned on God in a community dotted with churches both large and small.

“I saw a lot of love from the family to each other, and a lot of faith. Their faith was holding them up,” he said.

Seven funeral homes in all are handling services for the 23 victims, Harris said, and one mortuary is preparing 10 bodies on its own.

Sowell is now overseeing a disaster recovery operation that’s taking in donations and dispensing food, water, clothes, tarps, cleaning supplies and more from a church building across the road from where families learned their relatives had died.

Harris said he hasn’t had time to think about the emotional magnitude of the loss in a county of more than 160,000 people. Relatives say one extended family lost 10 people in all, and officials said as many as 116 homes were destroyed or severely damaged.

“I’m still in go mode,” he said. “Sometimes you just have to put your blinders on and get the job done.”

Categories: News | World
TribLIVE commenting policy

You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.

We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.

While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.

We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers

We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.

We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.

We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.

We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.