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. Hoffman pounded on the door of a first-floor apartment in her complex, screaming for help. No one answered. 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 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 found a piece of glass four by two inches 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."
The two then walked out onto 15th Street and looked toward campus. The sun was setting now, blushing the western sky pink. In the distance Hoffman saw the silhouettes of mangled metal, broken trees, splintered houses and rubble piled 15 feet high. Arms around each other, their eyes still dewy, Hughes said softly to his girlfriend, "It's gone. It's just all gone."
AT 5:08 P.M. ON APRIL 27, JOSH ROSECRANS, A CATCHER and relief pitcher on the Alabama baseball team, peered out a window. He lived at 308 17th Street East, near a small lake that was less than two miles from Bryant-Denny Stadium, and his eyes bulged at what he saw: The tornado was on the other side of the water, ripping up power lines, causing sparks of blue light to pop in the black sky.
Immediately he called his father, Levi, in Edmond, Okla. "What do I do?" he asked.
"Get a mattress and get into the tub. Now!"
Rosecrans and his roommate, pitcher Nate Kennedy, hurried to a bathroom that was in the center of their three-bedroom house. Taped on the bathroom mirror was a piece of paper with the Biblical passage Psalm 121:7: The Lord will protect you from all harm; He will protect your life.
The two jumped into the bathtub and pulled a mattress on top of them. The storm hit, the shrieking wind as loud as a jet engine. "Nate, there went the roof," Rosecrans yelled, holding on to the mattress with all his might as Kennedy lay on top of him in the fetal position, also gripping the mattress. "Hang on, man, just hang on."