From my stance at the jug, one pitch up the lichen-covered sandstone, I let my gaze wander skyward, grateful for the Alabama spring sunshine. I desperately needed to get out of the wreckage that was now my town and had been willing to suffer a couple hours in the car for the chance to climb. A tornado had decimated our area nine days before, and I thought climbing would help clear my head.
Scanning the flaring horizontals for holds and a gear placement, I spotted something yellow and fluffy in a vertical seam, just out of reach. I rocked up slightly on my toes, locked off, and removed a large chunk of fiberglass insulation from the crack. Easily 100 miles from the site of the devastation, I was finding pieces of buildings 100 feet up the rock.
I had watched the growing chaos through the front window of our apartment that gray afternoon.
The gargantuan oak trees had swayed violently in the courtyard, a torrent of old acorns, twigs and leaves filling the air. They stood like stalwart bastions against the growing storm, their sturdy trunks heaving under the raging winds, slowly beaten back, bending further with each surging gust. They strained to hold their deeply-rooted places in the earth. I was sure at least one of them would soon buckle under the pressure.
I had just finished checking the weather report online. The first two warnings had passed half an hour before. However, a third warning had just been issued. A tornado had touched down and was anticipated to run a course from 10th Avenue to McFarland Mall between 5:05 and 5:10 p.m. It was 5:02 and we lived right next to 10th Avenue. The signal on the local sky cam died just as the power went out.
The light from the window shifted from gray to an eerie green glow. Susan and I exchanged glances, and both moved purposefully in the direction of the bathroom, the only room with no windows in our second-floor apartment. Along the way Susan pulled the blanket off our bed, while I intended to continue to the back room for the headlamps and climbing helmets. The pressure dropped suddenly, my ears popping like mad, as if I were diving at a violent pace deep, deep underwater. Taking this as a sign that the helmets and headlamps could wait, I seated myself on the bathroom floor next to my wife, feeling the sweat on her palm as I squeezed her hand.
I looked at the pair of La Sportiva alpine boots on my feet against the backdrop of the hexagonal-pattern tiles on the floor. Susan had given me a new pair of crampons that morning before we left for work. I got home early and had been fitting the crampons to my boots when she called and asked me to pick her up. I walked out the door still wearing the boots, figuring that my footwear would have no impact on a 10-minute car ride. I also joked to myself that if the afternoon’s tornado warnings did in fact come to fruition, I‘d be well prepared in the footwear.
I was surprised to find that I was not as scared as I thought I would be. As we sat together I entertained the fleeting notion that I, my wife, or both of us, might be dead in a few moments. This was quickly followed by the realization that there was nothing I could do about it. I could not stop a tornado any more than I could stop gravity. All I could do was hold on tight and keep myself under control. Maybe it was the bright yellow boots I was wearing, but as the sky unleashed a torrent of swirling destruction upon us I realized that all the time I had ever spent climbing had prepared me for this moment. The commitment, the acceptance, the uncertainty, the fear--it felt exactly the same as being run-out far above small gear with the crux moves staring you in the face.
The tornado sounded like a freight train—the noise was much more malevolent. Every moment was punctuated with the sound of explosions and the cacophony of all our belongings being hurled against a wall that was being ripped apart. The sound of driving wind was ever-present, and yet, the whole furious noise seemed somehow distant, ringing through painfully muffled hearing.
The pressure lifted suddenly; the intense pain left my ears. In one terrifying, interminable, indescribably violent minute, the tornado had passed.
What was left of the ceiling instantly sprang leaks. Susan and I immediately plugged the sinks and bathtub, filling them with whatever water was left in the pipes. The walls were thoroughly beaten and misshapen, but still standing. Outside the front door I heard my neighbor attempting to make a phone call, though mostly she was screaming and crying. I opened the door.
What had once been a two-story apartment complex housing a couple hundred units was in many places leveled to the foundations. The mighty oaks in the courtyard lay splintered on the muddied lawn like so many toothpicks. No brick was untouched; every wall was cracked, battered, crooked, or simply rubble. The din of the receding gale and the screams of the frightened, bereaved, and injured assaulted my ears, battling for primacy. Breathing deeply, I slowly shut the door and ran to the back room to dig for the first-aid kit.
Moments later, we walked out our front door with purpose, I still in my boots, deeply grateful for my Wilderness First Responder certification and the refresher course I had taken just six months prior. As well as all our first-aid supplies, we had grabbed helmets, headlamps, kneepads, gloves and water, prepared to provide aid to anyone we could until the ambulances arrived, whenever that might be.
In the parking lot, a young woman screamed hysterically from the other side of a four-foot-tall wall of debris. After carefully picking a path across it, I discovered the cause of her alarm. At her feet lay a beautiful young, blue-eyed, blonde woman. She was severely eviscerated across the abdomen and bleeding profusely. Her eyes were unevenly dilated, she bled from the nose, vomit covered her face, and cerebrospinal fluid leaked from her ears. I held my fingers against the woman’s carotid artery and ear to her chest. If there was any pulse left, I could not detect it, and the few agonal respirations she had when we first arrived had ceased.
After what seemed a painfully long time though it was no more than seconds, I lifted my head and delivered the unfortunate news to the few bystanders. They collected a tattered bed sheet and a shredded tarp. Together we covered the young woman just as a narcotics officer arrived to call in the 10-89.
As we moved from the parking lot to the courtyard, three men flagged us over. In a small pile of rubble lay another young woman who identified herself as Chelsea. She was numb from the waist down and had absolutely no sensation below the knee. She was badly injured but stable. I assessed her spine and found evidence of serious trauma around the upper lumbar. In short order, the attending men transformed a kitchen table into a backboard in preparation for the three-block hike to a nearby hardware store-turned-triage station. We would later learn that Chelsea endured 12 hours of surgery and months of physical therapy, but can now walk again.
Two hours later Susan and I stood in the courtyard, surrounded by a small group of followers who had been assisting in the search-and-rescue process. We all gazed at the western sky as one of our number read the latest weather report on his smartphone: “Severe weather expected. Tornado watch has been issued for Tuscaloosa County starting at 7:00 p.m., continuing...” Another storm was coming.
I looked at Susan: “I think it’s time to boogie.” Mercifully, our car, though windowless and battered, started. The three mile drive to the University of Alabama recreation center took over two hours to complete. After administering first aid and helping to shelter numerous storm survivors, we finally collapsed into sleep on the floor of the climbing wall at 3:00a.m.
I took a slow breath, realizing I was over-gripping the rock in despair, and forced myself to relax, to appreciate my surroundings. Chris was all smiles below, the weather looming to the west held in check by the blue skies and sun over our heads. Savoring this peace, I pulled up over the bulge into easier terrain, with each move unweighting myself from the gravity of my feelings.