The night of the tornado Saban hosted a dozen confused, fear-stricken students at his home in Northport. His daughter, Kristen, is a Phi Mu—and a sorority sister of Ashley Harrison's. All through the night, Harrison's friends huddled in the Sabans' living room texting, calling and sending messages on Facebook, trying to determine if she was O.K. Even as the morning sun rose over a radically changed Tuscaloosa, the young women continued to reach out to their friend. Saban joined them at 5:30 a.m., taking a seat in a reclining chair. They prayed for the best.
It's been two weeks since the Tuscaloosa tornado struck. In the field across from where Carson Tinker's house once stood are three small wooden crosses marking where the wind had left the three victims of 611 25th Street—one for Tinker's dog, one for Harrison's dog and one for Harrison. Her body was found on the morning of April 28. She died of a broken neck, with barely a mark on her.
About 100 yards from the three crosses someone has nailed a crimson-and-white University of Alabama flag to the trunk of a tree that had been split in half. Brandon Gibson, a rising senior wide receiver, is standing close to that flag fluttering in the warm spring breeze. He was one of several Tide football players to search for survivors in the immediate hours after all hell was unleashed on Tuscaloosa. Surveying what's left of Tinker's house—a few bricks, a few books on the ground, a lawn chair—his voice cracks as he speaks.
"You look at Carson's place and you wonder how he's still alive," he says. "Ashley was such a wonderful girl, beautiful, always smiling, the kind of girl you wanted to be around. I look up to Carson. He's such a positive guy and he's so strong. I go up against him every day in practice because I have to block the long snapper, and he's just damn tough. But all of us athletes are going to have to be tough in the next few months. We can help carry this community. We can give them something to be proud of, give them something that can bring us together as one. We are going to be there for them, and we are going to work our butts off for the people of Tuscaloosa. We're going to help bring this place back."
"I'm just one story," said Tinker, as he limped down a hallway in Bryant-Denny Stadium last week. He's rehabbing with Dr. James Andrews in Birmingham. He will be physically healed this fall, but not even he knows where he'll be emotionally. "Soon I'm going to go visit a 10-year-old kid who lost his mom, dad and sister in the tornado," he says. "Think about that. There have been just so many people affected by this thing. It snuck up on us so fast. All we had time for was to run to the closet. We had no warning."
Three days after the tornado Tinker's mother, Debbie, pushed him in a wheelchair down a hall in the DCH medical center in Tuscaloosa. He wanted to leave his room for a few minutes and get a snack from a vending machine. He knew that Ashley was gone and he was suffering from nightmares, but his identity as an Alabama football player was still intact. He was wearing a crimson-colored Alabama T-shirt. Before Tinker and his mother reached the machine, a female hospital employee approached.
"Roll Tide," she said.
"Roll Tide," Tinker replied.
"We've got a lot to look forward to this fall," the employee told Tinker. "A whole lot."
And just then at DCH, where nearly 1,000 residents were treated for tornado-related injuries, Carson Tinker did something that he'll never forget, something that he hadn't done since the nearly 200 mph winds ripped apart his life and the lives of almost everyone in Tuscaloosa.