Students were some of first responders after tornado

In the aftermath of Tuscaloosa’s Apr. 27 tornado, many citizens stayed in their homes to avoid the damage and wait for help.

Some students didn’t wait.

Among them was Alex Rayfield, a junior majoring in civil engineering. The Montgomery native left his neighborhood with his brother, Hunter, and immediately began search and rescue.

Alex Rayfield said he and his brother didn’t wait a full 30 minutes before beginning to work.

“Thirty minutes after the storm hit, my brother, he's certified community emergency response team (CERT), gave me a quick one over,” Rayfield said. “We drove to DCH and started going through houses in Cedar Crest.”

Cedar Crest is located between Bryant Drive and 15th Street and is home to many students renting houses.

“We were the first people out there,” Rayfield said.

Rayfield said they began searching house by house. They focused initially on finding trapped people who needed help. They searched 20 to 25 houses the evening of the 27th before returning home, Rayfield said.

Their work didn’t stop there. Rayfield said they went immediately to work the next morning, arriving at 15th Street and McFarland Blvd to see what could be done. They encountered minimal resistance in the relief effort and were sent to Alberta to continue search and rescue.

“With us having vests on, and hardhats, and gloves and looking really official, we really didn’t have any problem getting into there,” Rayfield said.

“There was a nursing home that got hit pretty hard and we helped transfer all the elderly people to another nursing home that day,” Rayfield said. “We were out there in Holt and we had cadaver dogs with us the whole time out there and wherever they found something, we would just start digging.”

Rayfield said his group encountered a single deceased victim of the storm, but was able to help many people during the initial days.

Jamie Cicatiello, Hunter Rayfield’s girlfriend and a UA alumna, worked with the brothers during their search and rescue efforts. Having studied photojournalism at the University and the Savannah College of Art and Design, she now owns Grace Aberdean, an environmentally friendly store in Tuscaloosa.

Cicatiello said her first thoughts were to make sure she could tell the stories of the victims and survivors.

“I knew that if I could go out with my camera and talk to people and if I could tell very powerful stories with the photos, that would hopefully let people understand what we were going through,” Cicatiello said.

Cicatiello said she was worried about seeing the devastation of her hometown, but felt she had to help and encouraged the Rayfields to go.

“When Hunter [Rayfield] told me he wanted to do first response on Wednesday and take Alex [Rayfield], I didn't discourage him because Hunter is CERT trained, but before he left I told him you have to be prepared that you're going to see devastation, death, people with massive wounds,” Cicatiello said. “This is real life.”

Cicatiello said the thing she remembered most from the first few days wasn’t the destruction but the help.

“There were just so many volunteers that just showed up.  People from NUCOR Steel, national guardsmen, ROTC, firefighters from all over.  The Tuscaloosa fire captain and his boss had it so under control on how to best use all these volunteers,” Cicatiello said. “And of course the first responders that I rode around with. Nurses that had been working all night and yet came out the next day to assist.”

Debbie Blake, Operations Manager for NorthStar Paramedic Services, said the student response was very helpful.

Blake said NorthStar, which is based close to Rosedale, focused its immediate efforts on that stricken community but worked fast to reach Cedar Crest.

“Cedar Crest was one of the worst hit areas,” Blake said. “Once we made it over to Cedar Crest, we couldn’t drive across the trees and the power lines. We had to jump out of our ambulances and run to the hurt people.”

Blake said students helped greatly by recovering the injured and bringing them to the paramedics instead of forcing the paramedics to navigate the blocked roads.

“Of the thousands of people that helped us, many were University students, and we appreciated everything that they did,” Blake said.

For Alex Rayfield, to be among those volunteers was the only choice.

“I feel like if you’ve got a good pair of boots, jeans and gloves on, and you just walk down the street in Forest Lake or Cedar Crest, you realize what you’ve got to do,” Rayfield said.

Rayfield said that while his engineering co-op begins soon and he won’t be free to work during the week, he plans to do as much as he can.

“On the weekends, that's where I'm going to be. I’m going to be out there every single weekend, doing what I can,” Rayfield said. “I would love to be in the middle of it, out there every single day.”

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