Where the magnolia tree stands: a look back at the April 27 tornadoBy Matthew Wilson | 06/02/2016 3:33pm
The above illustration shows 15th Street following the April 27, 2011 tornado in conjunction with 15th Street now. CW | Drew Hoover and Layton Dudley.
Loryn was 21 years old, bright, bubbly and kind with a life long dream of attending The University of Alabama. The daughter of Crimson Tide defensive lineman and team captain, Shannon Brown, Loryn sat on the sidelines at age 2, dressed in his jersey, and cheered her daddy on for the National Championship. She decided when she was 3 that she’d follow in his foot steps.
Loryn shared a three bedroom house, 31 Beverly Heights, with roommates Danielle Downs and Kelli Rumanek Arthur (then Kelli Rumanek, before her marriage). Arthur’s family owned the house for years. The youngest child, it had passed through her family to her.
Loryn had been a co-worker of Arthur’s sister. Arthur met Danielle during one of her social work classes. Danielle was a kind young woman with an open heart who, like Arthur, wanted to help people.
“Hey, I need a roommate,” Arthur had announced during class.
“Good. I need a place to live,” Danielle responded.
On the morning of April 27, Loryn had one more test, a Spanish final exam that evening to finish out the semester at Shelton State Community College. She’d be attending the University next fall, pursuing a career in sports broadcasting with aspirations of working for ESPN.
There were signs of bad weather, blobs of red and orange on the radars coming from the west. Tuscaloosa was under a tornado warning. James Spann was on the television, telling Skyland Boulevard to take cover. Adam Watley, a firefighter, was at Station 7 when he saw it cutting across.
“That’s not it. That’s just a big storm coming toward us,” someone had said.
Watley’s mind couldn’t absorb it. A mile wide, the tornado was unlike anything in the movies. His wife texted him, asking for the location of the station. He hated to tell her where he was.
Arthur was at the library with her boyfriend and future husband, Eric Arthur. Loryn, Danielle, and their friend Will Stevens waited out the storm inside the house. Loryn had built a fort of blankets and pillows in the hallway to protect them from debris.
The tornado took a path toward them. Mims saw the tornado on screen, headed for her daughter’s house. She was on the phone with her daughter, telling her everything was going to be okay.
“I’m scared, Mama!” Loryn cried.
“It’s going to be okay. It’s going to be okay,” her mother promised.
Then, the line went dead, and though she wouldn’t confirm it until much later, Mims knew in that moment that her daughter was gone.
A large tree had crashed through the house killing all three students.
Those moments, the final minutes of her daughter’s life, play over and over in Mims’ head. There’s before April 27 and after April 27. There’s life with Loryn and life after Loryn. Like the city of Tuscaloosa, Mims’ life had been severed in two.
The tornado had cut across in the path of Glendale Gardens. Mary Wallace Pitts huddled in the small interior hallway of her house with her three triplets. When they were little, she’d put them in the hallway closet during bad weather. Now 11 years old, her daughters were squeezed into the closet and her son in the doorway, covered by beanbags and sofa pillows.
The television was on – the broadcaster announced the tornado was heading in their direction. Then the house lost power, and there was an unnatural silence. One of her daughters held onto the family dog, an Australian Shepherd named Sky, and the other sobbed.
“It’s fine. There’s no problem,” Pitts told them calmly. “It’s just going to get real loud in a minute.”
But, she knew it wasn’t going to be okay. She heard the sirens. They had no protection, but she didn’t want her children to know they were about to die.
Then the tornado hit. It picked up their house, blowing out every window and door. Pitts opened her eyes to her children crying. There was glass embedded in the walls.
She remembers them yelling about the magnolia tree knocked down.
“The magnolia tree’s gone!” they cried
“The whole neighborhood’s gone,” Pitts said.
They say it’s supposed to lessen over time. Everyday the weight seems to increase, but she seems to grow stronger to carry it. That’s how Mims describes grief. Five years seems like yesterday, and Mims counts the days until she’s reunited with her daughter.
It’s her faith that pushes her forward, the belief that God has a plan and is taking her on this journey for a reason.
“We have a very strong faith. We all know that God has a plan,” Mims said. “He chose me to go on this journey, and he chose them to have to endure this. We have almost this peace you get to allow you to continue, to hold on until the day we see Loryn again.”
Mims went to a counselor for a time, but about a year ago, she joined an online worldwide grief group made up of over 20,000 grieving mothers. She hated that other mothers were going through the same situation but was glad she had a place, she didn’t have to hide her feelings.
Reading through stories and talking with others has been beneficial. Mims said there’s also a community grief group where you can meet with people in person.
“It gets to a point where people kind of look at you and turn their heads to the side and say, ‘Aw, poor thing,’ ” Mims said. “I just want understanding. Us moms who have to experience this don’t want constant sympathy. We just want understanding of what we’re going through. Unfortunately, no one understands it unless you’ve been through it.”
Last year, Mims rode in Bo Bikes Bama, an event started by former NFL, MLB and Auburn football and baseball player Bo Jackson to raise money for the state tornado preparedness fund. Participants bike a total of either 20 or 60 miles. It wasn’t something Mims ever dreamed she could do, but she never dreamed she’d lose her daughter either.
Spurred on by fellow riders who would not let her quit and pushed forward by the picture of Loryn taped to the back of her bike, Mims finished the miles-long bike ride.
“I really want to do it again. One of Loryn’s friends is getting married in Mobile,” Mims said. “I can’t do it this year. I can’t miss that. It’s very important. There are milestones — weddings. It keeps her memory still alive through them.”
Behind the Shelton State campus where Loryn would have graduated is the State Fire College. Adam Watley spends his off duty days at the college, training new recruits to be firefighters.
Watley was one of the first responders to Rosedale after the tornado struck. Where an apartment complex home to hundreds of people once stood, there was rubble. Within the first five minutes, a woman, no shoes, clothes almost ripped off, approached them carrying her lifeless toddler.
Watley had a son at home who just turned 3. He didn’t have the heart to tell her there was nothing he could do. Just like he didn’t have the heart to turn away two more toddlers people brought to him.
“Not saying one life is more important than another, but when someone elderly passes away, you can kind of justify it in your mind that they lived a good life, but when it’s a 2 year old, it’s really tough to say that they’re gone and there’s absolutely nothing I can do about it,” Watley said.
Watley knows he and the fire station did everything they could. They had no radio communication and no cellphones, but they transported 47 people to the hospital in a three-hour period. It was tough to deal with hundreds of people wounded, to have to turn away people with broken bones and tell them to walk to the hospital because other people were near death.
It wasn’t something Watley was mentally prepared for, but he’s proud of how Tuscaloosa’s firefighters came together. Off-duty members came to the station and continued the search, looking for survivors and recovering the deceased. By the end of the night, Tuscaloosa fire stations had recovered 51 out of the 53 deceased.
“We’re the fire department,” he said. “It stops at us. When you have a problem, you call for the firetruck. There’s nobody past us to solve the problem and help people out.”
Mary Wallace Pitts remembers being in a state of shock and devastation. Pitts continues to teach in the geography department at The University of Alabama and live at Glendale Gardens.
After the storm, they sent their children and their friends’ children to Pitts’s father-in-law in Selma. They walked downtown, shell-shocked, with Pitts’ son carrying his guitar and her daughters carrying boxes of stuff they salvaged from their room. The neighbor’s children had bike helmets on. Sirens blared. The buzzing of chainsaws filled Pitts’ ears.
Pitts teaches a natural hazards course, and after the storm, she didn’t know if she could teach it anymore.
“Fall schedule was already set, and I thought I’d just teach it this once and won’t do it anymore,” Pitts said. “When I taught it that fall, I realize that was really stupid. I have first-hand experience. One thing I was able to share with my students is you can make your plans and you need to.”
She couldn’t prove to her insurance that she owned a car, even though it was smashed under a tree, because her title had been in the house. She couldn’t think straight. Decisions seemed to come slowly. They needed a place to live. They couldn’t stay in their half-destroyed house. They needed a car.
They moved three times over the next seven months. Healing came, but it came slow. After 10 days, Pitts and her husband decided to bring their children back to Tuscaloosa.
“We needed to let them come back and be a part of it,” she said. “We couldn’t protect them from it happening, so we should let them be a part of the positive coming out of it again.”
A month after the storm, the children who lived on the street participated in a musical at their school, “The Wizard of Oz.” The arts department was unsure about the play, but the parents encouraged it. The children had lost their homes – let them have their play.
“Nothing will change the fact that people died that day, but we didn’t,” she said. “We have to carry on and be grateful and thankful that we didn’t.”
Does trauma ever heal, or does it become so fundamentally ingrained that it never really goes away? Kelli Rumanek Arthur believes the latter. She knows that she’s changed, that she’s a different person now. Staring at the wreckage of her former house, she realized how quickly life can be snuffed away.
She feels guilty. A shame filled her, because in that moment, she was alive and her roommates were dead. She tried to understand what happened, tried to be grateful that she wasn’t in the house, but it was hard to be happy when attending funerals.
“I didn’t know how their families would perceive me or my family,” Arthur said. “Danielle’s mother is the one that kind of helped settle all those fears, and at her visitation, she looked at me, ‘Now you have three other people to live for.’ ”
Arthur married her boyfriend three months after the tornado. They saw their life flash before their eyes and realized they wanted to be together and take the next step. Living in Birmingham, Arthur recently had her first child, now a 4-month-old daughter named Sadie.
“Being a mother is one of the most amazing things that I’ve ever experienced in life,” Arthur said. “That has been an incredible journey.”
Arthur works as a social worker at a psychiatric hospital where she uses the trauma she experienced to educate her co-workers and be better at her job. In the months following the tornado, she went to the UA Counseling Center to work through some of her emotions, and though it took time, she eventually opened up to her family.
The storm’s a part of Arthur. It’s a part of Mary Wallace Pitts and Adam Watley. Every time they hear a storm approaching or see bad weather on the radar, their anxiety levels increase. Arthur’s texting her family, wondering if they’re okay and if today is the day she’s going to lose someone else close to her.
Bennett Bozeman remembers the storm. From his fraternity rooftop deck, he watched as the tornado cut across behind Bryant-Denny Stadium, the sky a violent yellow and green.
Bozeman said any time he sees tornadoes on television, the memories start coming back. The destruction looks the same as it did in Tuscaloosa. Bozeman said he thinks emergency preparedness tests are beneficial.
“I think that they’re helpful because with the size of this storm, you can never be too prepared,” he said. “Once we saw how much damage was done, we realized that if we had been in the path of that tornado, our fraternity house would not have stood a chance. We probably would not have survived that. Preparation is key, I think, in those situations. Not a lot of college students watch The Weather Channel.”
When they were building their new house at the end of Glendale Gardens, Pitts and her husband decided to install a steel storm shelter, because every time the wind blew, she felt the panic. Watley moved his family into an older 1970s model house with a sturdy infrastructure and a basement.
“When I hear James Spann talk about possible storms, I get a little antsy about it,” Watley said. “I bought something with good sturdy bones to it because I don’t want to go out that way. Something else may happen to me, but I don’t want it to be a tornado.”
Loryn was like another mother to her own mother’s three children and her father’s two children. She loved her siblings as much as any sister could. Mims wanted to be the one to tell her children that their sister wasn’t coming home. She wanted to be there for them in that moment.
She told the people from her church, who were looking after the kids, not to tell them and to make it as normal a day as possible, but Holly, the middle daughter, knew when her mother was getting out of the car. She knew because of her mother’s blanched white face.
“We came home, sat them down on the bed and told them that Sissy wasn’t coming home. It was a hard day,” Mims said. “Some of the times after when we have had bad weather, my children know the reality of what a storm can do. They know what can happen, and as a parent you try to console your children and tell them it’s okay.”
As a parent, that’s her natural reflex when something goes wrong. Even if in her mind she thinks it might not be okay, Mims doesn’t want her children to be afraid.
Anna, the youngest daughter, caught her mother telling her that everything’s going to be okay.
“Mama, don’t say that,” she said. “It wasn’t okay when Sissy didn’t come home.”
Holly is now 17, Anna, 13, and Mims’ son Parker, 17. Mims encourages them to remember the good times they had with Loryn. Her children have been helping Mims research applicants for the Loryn “Lo” Brown Endowed Scholarship. In its fourth year, the scholarship was established so that Loryn’s hopes and dreams of a degree at The University of Alabama can live on.
At Holtville High School’s senior night, one of the senior soccer players, Jacie Porter, plans to give her jersey, No. 11, to Holly. No. 11 was the same number Loryn wore when she played softball. Life continues on, and Mims wants her children to know Tuscaloosa, the place Loryn loved so much.
“I do anything that I can to go back,” Mims said. “It’s good to see Tuscaloosa rebuild.”
Adam Watley is scared that people will forget about the tornadoes. He said there’s less coverage now, and like 9/11, every year there seems to be fewer and fewer stories. He doesn’t want the people like Loryn, Danielle and Will to be forgotten.
Kelli Rumanek Arthur said it is to be expected for Tuscaloosa to recover and move on from the tornado, but she doesn’t believe those lost will ever be forgotten.
“I feel like Tuscaloosa as a city and the people that live in Tuscaloosa have kind of moved on,” Arthur said. “Not that it’s bad that the city’s moved on by any means. It’s good that it’s moving forward for the greater good of the city. Will anyone ever truly understand the devastation? Probably not, but the world keeps spinning. Time keeps moving.”
There’s a shoebox, wrapped in wrapping paper with a bow on top, among Mims’ most prized possessions. The box is empty except for a single note that Mims has read so much over the past five years that it has been committed to memory. The note’s always there when Mims opens the box, reminding her of Loryn.
“Anytime you want a hug or a kiss, you just have to open the box.”
There’s a magnolia tree planted at 31 Beverly Heights with a weeping cherry and a dogwood. The house has been rebuilt in the years since, and if you didn’t know about the tornado, no one would think anyone ever died there.
The trees were planted a year after the tornado – a sapling to represent each student and what was lost on that day. Loryn’s is a magnolia tree.
“Loryn was the perfect Southern belle,” Mims said. “She ... talked like a Southern belle, dressed like a Southern belle. She followed the Southern belle rules let me tell you. I picked the magnolia tree because it’s the perfect Southern tree. When you think of trees in the South, magnolia is one of the top trees that springs to mind.”
The trees will continue to grow, weathering storms and standing tall in the sun, in the years to come – five years, 10 years, 15 years, 20 years, 21 years. This year, the magnolia is blooming.
On a Wednesday afternoon in April with no one around, the magnolia tree sways gently in the wind.