At 5:30 a.m. on April 27 in Tuscaloosa, Ala., in a four-bedroom, two-bathroom house at 611 25th Street, Carson Tinker was awakened by thunder. When he peered through his window that faced west, he saw flashes of lightning fracture the dark Southern sky. The bolts held his eyes.
That morning Tinker, 21, a junior and Alabama's starting long snapper, attended class and then picked up his girlfriend of 11 months, Ashley Harrison, a senior honors student. The two returned to Tinker's house for lunch, eating leftover ham-and-potato salad that Harrison had cooked for Easter three days earlier then settled into the living room couch to watch The NeverEnding Story. The movie soon bored Tinker, so he took his dog, Josie, a German shepherd mix, and Harrison's dog, B, a black Lab, to a large, grassy field across the street. Tinker hit golf balls; the dogs fetched. This field was one of Tinker's favorite places in Tuscaloosa. Framed by towering oaks, he felt at peace; aside from the occasional bark, the only sound was the wind strumming the leaves. He often called his time in the field with the dogs "one of the highlights of my day."
Tinker returned to the house an hour later. After showering he saw that Ashley and his two roommates—Alan Estis and Payton Holley—were riveted to the television. A weatherman declared in a raised voice that a tornado was tearing toward Tuscaloosa.
Tinker and Holley stepped onto their front porch, gazing upward, searching for a funnel cloud. All they saw was a dark spring sky. Tinker had planned to move to a neighbor's basement if a tornado was nearby, but he saw nothing. A few seconds later his cellphone bleated. It was his grandfather, Jim Cartledge, calling from Hoover, Ala. "Carson, you need to take cover now!"
"Yes, sir," Carson replied.
Tinker and Holley ran inside. What they couldn't see was that a few miles to the west of their house, the most powerful long-track tornado ever in Alabama, an EF-4 level twister with winds of 190 mph, was bearing down on them at 55 mph. Quickly the four students and the two dogs wedged themselves into a walk-in closet in Estis's bedroom. Tinker wrapped his 6'1", 220-pound frame around Harrison. "We're going to be O.K.," he said softly into her ear.
The tornado hit 611 25th Street with cruel directness. Cowering in the closet, crouched on the floor, Tinker held Harrison tight. As the winds roared—"It sounded like there was an F-18 in the front yard," Estis would later say—they could hear the walls creak. "I'm scared, Carson," Harrison said.
"It's going to be O.K.," Tinker shouted as the house began to disintegrate. "It's going to be O.K., Ashley."
Just then Tinker was sucked out of the closet, catapulted into the air like a rock by a giant slingshot and thrown 100 yards into the field he loved so much. He blacked out, concussed, and when he opened his eyes moments later he couldn't recognize anything. The oak trees had vanished; the house was a pile of rubble on the other side of the road. Ashley was gone.
In a suddenly perfect silence, Tinker wandered around the field. He had a broken right wrist, gashes in his head and a large cut on his right ankle. His body moved in slow motion, but with a sense of urgency. "Ashley, where are you?" he screamed. "Ashley!"