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Maelstrom

March 2nd, 2007 - 4:45 am

When a small town’s name is plastered across the national news, it’s very rarely because anything good happened there. My hometown has had that dubious distinction four times during my life. The town was wrecked by Hurricane Eloise in 1975, then again by Opal, almost exactly 20 years later. In between, a media circus sprung up when a junk shop owner named Wayne O’Ferrell was investigated by the FBI for allegedly mailing a fatal bomb to a federal judge (that one turned out to be a wild-goose chase; the actual bomber wound up being from Minnesota. O’Ferrell wasn’t sharp enough to mail in his power bill two out of three months, much less build a mail bomb).

And now there’s this.

Tornadoes killed at least seven people in south Alabama today, including five at Enterprise High School, where students were trapped as a hallway roof collapsed.

One person died elsewhere in Enterprise, in Coffee County, and one man died in Wilcox County, Alabama Emergency Management Agency spokeswoman Yasamie Richardson said shortly after 8 p.m. At least 35 people from the Enterprise area were hospitalized with injuries.

Richardson said a higher number of deaths at the school was reported erroneously earlier in the evening because of “miscommunication at the site.” But she said search and rescue efforts were continuing in Enterprise on tonight, and the number of dead could rise.

The damage at Enterprise High School was horrific, as rescue personnel scrambled to find trapped students or staff after the tornado hit around 1 p.m.

Eleventh-grader Francisco Paulino said students had been sent to the halls for safety just before the winds struck.

“Most of the third hall was blown in by the wind,” said a shaken Paulino, whose arm was heavily bandaged following his storm injuries. Paulino said some students were trapped under debris and others were helping get them out.

That’s jarring stuff, especially when you can instantly picture the spot the witnesses are talking about. My homeroom class was on Third Hall; so was Mrs. Saliba’s Spanish classroom, and the history class where an ashen-faced teacher slumped against the doorway and said simply, “The Space Shuttle blew up” twenty-one years ago.

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The death toll has been all over the map since late yesterday. It was reportedly as high as 15 in the high school alone, but this morning there are conflicting reports that fatalities were overstated. Then you read this:

Another witness claims to have gone into third hall and helped remove “two dead little girls. It’s very disturbing..They’re not moving, they’ve got a full morgue over there…six.. I don’t feel right, right now…It’s the first time I’ve ever seen something like this…the school coach, he had a couple of injuries – a deep gash in his knuckles and gash on his leg…We took him to the triage they have over there they set up behind the school…”

Late into the night excavation crews continued to work to try and lift a wall off the collapsed ceiling to see what they could find and unfortunately they found the bodies of three students.

Enterprise is a small town, but as a friend who’d never even visited the place emailed me last night, no town is big enough to shrug off dead children.

My parents still live in Enterprise, and I spent a very unpleasant hour yesterday trying vainly to reach them by phone. They’re fine, but the town is in terrible shape. A neighbor told my dad how he’d watched the enormous tornado pass over, with trees and huge chunks of destroyed homes swirling around inside the vortex, a real-life vision straight out of the Wizard Of Oz.

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The devastation wasn’t limited to the high school. Here’s a picture from Dixie Drive, which I’ve probably driven down a thousand times. I don’t recognize a thing I see here:

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I’ve got no wisdom to add here, no pithy remarks or snappy summations. To be perfectly frank, I didn’t like high school, and one of the best days of my life was the one when I realized I never had to live in Enterprise again. None of that lessens the shock of seeing the place in ruins.

UPDATE: Many more pictures here.

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