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TERROR, TRAGEDY AND HOPE IN TUSCALOOSA
Lars Anderson
May 23, 2011
On April 27 the most devastating tornado in Alabama history cut nearly a mile-wide swath through the university town, killing 41. Crimson Tide athletes, haunted by the storm and its aftermath, work to heal a community that has always cheered them on as they try to put their own lives back together
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May 23, 2011

Terror, Tragedy And Hope In Tuscaloosa

On April 27 the most devastating tornado in Alabama history cut nearly a mile-wide swath through the university town, killing 41. Crimson Tide athletes, haunted by the storm and its aftermath, work to heal a community that has always cheered them on as they try to put their own lives back together

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A day after the tornado struck, Arenas drove 11 hours to his home in Kansas City, wanting to leave the destruction and heartache behind. But he couldn't. So he steered his 2008 black Denali to a Sam's Club, purchased $1,600 worth of necessities—bottled water, baby food, toothpaste—and returned the next day to Tuscaloosa. He tweeted that he would be giving away his supplies outside of a mall on McFarland Boulevard, and within minutes, hundreds of homeless tornado victims surrounded his SUV.

"I never realized that as a former Alabama football player, I can bring a smile to someone's face just by hugging them," says Arenas. "That's why I've been going to see the National Guard guys. I'm just trying to brighten their days."

"I can't emphasize enough how much seeing Javier boosts the morale of everyone here," says Sergeant Stocks, watching Arenas sign more autographs. "I guess you could say that's the power of Alabama football during this unprecedented event in this state."

Kayla Hoffman may have been the happiest student on the Alabama campus on the afternoon of April 27. Eleven days earlier in Cleveland, Hoffman, a 5'1", 120-pound senior, had led the Crimson Tide to the NCAA women's gymnastics title. On the final day of competition, Hoffman had the routine of her life, earning a 9.95 on the floor exercise—the highest score in the team competition at nationals—as Alabama edged UCLA for the championship. Then, on the morning everything changed in T-town, Hoffman was named winner of the Honda Award, given to the top female gymnast in Division I.

That afternoon she received dozens of congratulatory texts, voicemails and tweets. Around 4 p.m. she jogged around campus with her boyfriend of three years, Michael Hughes, a decathlete on the Alabama track team. Then Hughes drove to his apartment in Northport, a mile north of Tuscaloosa, and Hoffman went to her second-floor off-campus apartment at 1509 6th Avenue, which sits a football field away from 15th and McFarland.

She showered. Moments after finishing, she lost power in her apartment. Hoffman heard warning sirens, but thought little of it; they had gone off dozens of times in recent weeks and every one proved to be a false alarm. But as she dressed she received a text from a teammate who lived in a ground-floor apartment only 200 yards away: Hurry, come here. It's coming. It's huge.

Hoffman grabbed a hairbrush and stuffed nail-polish remover and cotton balls in her purse—she had hoped to do her nails while waiting out the storm—and rushed down her stairs. She walked into the suddenly cool late afternoon and started to run to her teammate's apartment. After taking three or four steps Hoffman looked up: The nearly mile-wide tornado was right in front of her. Several cars were flying through the air not more than 30 feet away.

She turned to run to back to her apartment, but she was pummeled by flying objects: glass shards, pieces of wood, rocks, clumps of mud. She had no time. Gripped with fear, Hoffman pounded on the door of a first-floor apartment in her complex, number 104, screaming for help. No one answered. Still being slammed by debris, she crouched in the door frame, put her purse over her head and scrunched herself into the smallest ball she could. The wind blew so hard that the stones in her stud earrings flew away. Insulation battered her eyes and mouth as the tornado slashed through her building.

Three miles away, Hughes was horrified when he heard news reports that 15th and McFarland had been hit hard. He needed to make sure his girlfriend was alive. He left his apartment, but quickly got stuck in traffic. A mile and a half from where Hoffman had crouched in a door, he hopped out of his car and began sprinting toward her apartment. "It was easily the fastest I've ever run," says Hughes. When he arrived, the facade of the complex was virtually gone and Hoffman was nowhere to be found. In the midst of his desperate search, Hughes stepped on a nail, puncturing the bottom of his right foot. When he heard from a friend that another tornado was coming, Hughes ran another mile to Coleman Coliseum and sought shelter in the track-and-field locker room, located in the basement. His foot was a bloody mess, his sock now red.

Breathing heavy, frightened, Hughes had a trainer patch up his foot. Minutes later the all-clear was given and Hughes sprinted back to Hoffman's apartment, his foot throbbing with every stride. He pounded on doors. No one answered. He ran to another complex. "Is Kayla Hoffman here?" he yelled into one apartment after the next. Finally, after what felt like a lifetime, he found her in the apartment of another gymnast. Hoffman was bloodied—she had suffered a six-inch cut on her right calf and had even found a piece of glass four-by-two inches long lodged in her sports bra—but alive. The two embraced, tears leaking from their eyes. "I just couldn't let go of Michael," Hoffman says. "I thought I was going to die. I was almost sure of it. And seeing him was like nothing I've ever experienced."

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