At 5:10 p.m. on April 27, Javier Arenas, like many Tuscaloosa residents, was watching the local news as the emergency sirens blared. Arenas, a senior punt returner and defensive back on 'Bama's national title team in 2009, was a rookie for the Kansas City Chiefs last year after being drafted in the second round. Like many former Crimson Tide players, he lives in T-town in the off-season because, he says, "it's where I've experienced the best memories of my life.
"This will always be home to me," says Arenas, a native of Tampa who set an SEC record for punt return touchdowns (seven) in '09. "Alabama football is a religion here. We don't have any professional teams. You can walk into any living room in the state and they'll have either an Alabama logo or an Auburn logo. The devotion of the fans is unlike anything I've ever seen anywhere."
Arenas was alone in his living room at 1427 Gardenia Avenue, just two blocks from the intersection of 15th Street and McFarland Boulevard, which residents would soon refer to as Ground Zero. A TV weatherman said that the tornado was blowing through downtown, four miles from Arenas's three-bedroom house. Then he looked out the window, and what he saw left him breathless: There, less than a quarter mile away, was the twister, barreling straight toward him.
Immediately he called a childhood friend, Stephen Adkins, who was traveling on his baseball team's bus in Georgia. "I can see it!" Arenas yelled.
"Stay calm," replied Adkins. "Go to your bathroom and get in the tub. Do it now!"
As Arenas sprinted to his bathroom, Adkins stayed on the phone; he could hear the wind start to blow through the house. A moment later, as Arenas clutched the side of the bathtub with all his strength, he told his friend, "I think my car just blew into my living room." Then the phone cut out.
"I've known Javier since we were six years old and I've never heard him so scared," says Adkins. "I was in complete panic. I probably called him 100 times in the next hour."
Arenas prayed in his bathtub. Please God let it be over. Please let it be over... . And then it was. The tornado passed. Arenas, his heart jackhammering, walked outside. Several houses in his neighborhood were flattened. A few women ran down his street screaming. He meandered, as if in a dreamlike fog, to his favorite place on 15th Street, a Smoothie King, where he had always stopped after his workouts. The building looked as if a fist from the sky had reached down and smashed it. But as he walked closer to where the Smoothie King had stood 10 minutes earlier, he heard two women buried in the store's rubble, begging to be rescued. As Arenas drew closer to help, he was overcome by the noxious smell of gas. He ran to a fireman, told him of the women, and within minutes they were pulled to safety.
Not knowing where to go, Arenas then walked to a mall, which seemed to be untouched. He sat on a curb for nearly an hour, trying to process what he had just seen. What he didn't know—but would learn later—was that three bodies lay on the mall's roof, thrown there by the storm.
"You couldn't have made a tornado that big even in the movies," says Arenas, standing in front of what remains of his house 10 days after the tornado, the putrid smell of dead animal and rotten food heavy in the air. "Afterward everyone was walking around like zombies. It's hard. I'm trying to get my head together. It's going to take time."