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For at least 10 minutes, before his roommates, who were mostly unharmed, found him help, Tinker stumbled in circles, searching for the girl that he had been with almost every day for the past year. "Ashley," he screamed, "where are you?"
How do you tell the story of the deadliest tornado in the history of Alabama? As of Sunday, 41 were confirmed dead—including six students from the University of Alabama—and hundreds injured in Tuscaloosa and Tuscaloosa County alone. (A total of 238 people were killed by more than 60 tornadoes that ravaged the state on April 27.) But these raw numbers can't begin to account for the damage. Nearly every resident in the town of 90,000 has trouble sleeping, and when they do close their eyes and drift away, most are tormented by please-God-wake-me nightmares.
I live in Birmingham and from my front porch saw the same twister that decimated Tuscaloosa pass five miles to the north. Debris with Tuscaloosa markings—letters, business cards, pictures—fell in my neighborhood, which is 60 miles from T-town. My dreams, too, have been haunted by the images of destruction and despair I've seen in Tuscaloosa, where I taught a sportswriting class at the university this spring. None of my 14 students were physically harmed—though it took days of frantic texting and e-mailing to verify that as cellphones and Internet connections failed throughout Alabama—but the storm continues to swirl inside of them, deepening their emotional scars.
"The tornado cut a six-mile path through here that was a half mile to a mile wide," says Tuscaloosa mayor Walt Maddox as he looks at the ruins of a grocery store where his mother took him shopping as a boy. "Fifteen thousand people here were in the path of this thing. The enormity of it all can swallow you."
The most iconic structure in the state, Bryant-Denny Stadium, looms in the distance, dominating the battered T-town skyline. The tornado passed just a half mile south of the campus. "If it hits us," says Anthony Grant, the Crimson Tide men's basketball coach, "this place would have been shut down for several years. Who knows? Maybe longer."
Tuscaloosa is among the most sports-obsessed cities in America—greetings of "Roll Tide" are as common here as a simple "hello." Athletics will play a special role in rebuilding it, brick by brick, life by life. "We can create a psychological escape for the people of this town," says Nick Saban, Alabama's football coach. "They have a great passion for sports, and we'll be there for them."
The grainy images flickered on the concrete wall of the cavernous Alabama National Guard armory in Northport, five miles northwest of Bryant-Denny. Across the floor were rows of cots, where hundreds of National Guardsmen and Guardswomen—mostly from Alabama—had slept since the tornado ripped through Tuscaloosa.
A unit from Mobile was relaxing—sleeping, reading, listening to iPods or watching highlights of Crimson Tide football projected on to the wall. In one clip, 'Bama was scoring a touchdown against Auburn; in another Bear Bryant was prowling the sideline; in another the Tide was winning the 2009 national title. Sweet Home Alabama played in the background in a seemingly endless loop.
"The troops here are tired," said Staff Sgt. Greg Stocks, 54, a native of Fayette, Ala. "We put in long hours, 12-hour shifts. I went through Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, and this is as bad as it gets. It's a horrendous tragedy. But hearing that music and seeing those highlights lifts us up. This is Roll Tide country. Like most of the people in here, I've been an Alabama fan since even before I was born."
As Stocks spoke he looked into a far corner of the drill hall, and what he saw caused a smile to stretch across his sunburned face: A former Alabama football player had just entered the room. The player shook hands, posed for pictures, signed tan-colored patrol caps. Then he did something that caused all 150 troops in the room to lean in close: He shared his story.