Image: Grave of Kathry Gray Haney
Chris Hawley  /  AP
In an April 30, 2011 photo, with tornado-damaged trees in the background, relatives of Kathy Gray Haney gather near the grave after her burial in Pisgah, Ala. The neighborhood where the Gray family lived was hit by two tornadoes within a 10-hour period, killing Gray Haney and two other relatives. (AP Photo/Chris Hawley)
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updated 5/1/2011 2:45:04 PM ET 2011-05-01T18:45:04

The tornadoes followed each other as if guided by rails, three times over 10 terrifying hours, straight at the little cluster of homes where Joseph Wayne Haney and his relatives lived.

The first crushed Haney's wife to death under a piano. The second twisted menacingly overhead but didn't touch down. And the third, a true monster, blew the neighborhood to pieces, killing two more of his kin.

On a day that sowed heartbreak throughout the South, this close-knit family received more than its share of the sky's rage, Haney said.

"It came back," Haney said, blinking back tears outside a funeral home on Saturday. "It came back the same path, and it killed more."

In Pisgah, like elsewhere, it happened with blinding speed.

Haney was asleep in the living room recliner when his wife, Kathy Gray Haney, woke him.

"She said, 'I think there's a tornado,'" Haney said. "And just as she said the word 'tornado,' it hit us."

Image: Destroyed house of Herbert and Ann Satterfield
Chris Hawley  /  AP
Only the foundation blocks remain in place after a tornado destroyed the house of Herbert and Ann Satterfield in Pisgah, Ala.

Their mobile home heaved into the air and slammed into a line of trees. Their piano landed on the couple, and the rest of the house collapsed on top of it. The family Bible landed next to them.

As the wind screamed, Haney said, he wrapped his arms around his wife's legs and tried to pull her to him.

"She said 'Honey, I love you, and I'm hurting,'" Haney said.

This week was supposed to be a joyous one for the Haneys and their extended family. Their niece, Whitney Lawhorn, was getting married on Monday, and the whole family was invited.

The Haneys themselves had been married 23 years. They met at a dance at the VFW hall and tied the knot just six months later.

Haney, now 45 and known to everyone as just Wayne, was something of a ne'er-do-well back then, he said. But with her smile and her twinkling brown eyes, Kathy had straightened him out.

Kathy, 46, liked to take walks in the woods, dig for wild ginseng and collect Indian arrowheads, said her sister, Peggy Lawhorn. She played piano at the New Hermon Baptist Church until a stroke last year paralyzed her left arm.

"She'd do anything for you anytime she could," Whitney Lawhorn said. "She didn't care who you were, she wanted to talk to you."

The family was close, Peggy Lawhorn said, with a half-dozen Grays and their spouses all living in a cluster of homes within a half-mile of each other on the verdant northern edge of a plateau known as Sand Mountain.

The mountain itself bears much of the blame for what happened Wednesday, said Richard Lawhorn, Haney's brother-in-law. Jutting 900 feet above the Tennessee River, the flat-topped mountain practically scrapes the bottom clouds of eastward-moving storms.

"It all gets swirled up and comes tearing over the bluff," Richard Lawhorn said.

Of the 342 dead from Wednesday's storms, 33 were in Alabama's DeKalb County, much of which is perched on Sand Mountain.

Richard Lawhorn was the first to get to Haney's collapsed mobile home. As he neared the wreckage, he could hear Haney shouting for help. But there was no sound from Kathy.

The family used a tractor with a front-loader attachment to lift the debris. It took 90 minutes for an ambulance crew to pick its way through the fallen trees, and another 90 minutes to get Haney back to the hospital.

Suddenly a second twister materialized, coiling like a snake in the turbulent sky. But it didn't touch down, passing a little to the north of Pisgah.

Then, at 4:30 p.m., another monstrous funnel appeared. It crashed through the trees and obliterated the house of Kathy's 90-year-old great-uncle, Herbert Satterfield, and his wife, Ann, who was in her 70s.

When the wind settled down, there was nothing left of the house but a few cracked cinder blocks and some shattered pieces of floor.

On Saturday, the family buried Kathy in the cemetery of the Friendship Baptist Church. Chainsaws buzzed in the distance. Smoke from burning debris wafted over the graves.

Herbert and Ann would be buried in the coming days.

The wedding was postponed. The judge who was supposed to have performed the marriage lost his own son in a tornado in Tuscaloosa.

The last flowers were piled on Kathy's grave. Family members embraced, then climbed into their pickup trucks and headed home to resume the cleanup.

"It doesn't seem right that one family should get hit twice," Richard Lawhorn said. "But at least we've got each other to get through it."

___

Associated Press Writer Michael Rubinkam contributed to this report.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Hundreds still missing in Alabama

  1. Closed captioning of: Hundreds still missing in Alabama

    >>> those tornadoes is just unimaginable. you've been there for days now. what can you tell us about the situation this morning?

    >>> the more time you spend here, jenna, you realize the defining patterns of these tornadoes. i'm standing on the edge of one and you see perhaps a parking garage or trees in the background about a quarter mile , a little more, that's the width. this particular tornado went across tuscaloosa . so there's so much damage like this and then you go a few blocks and everything is fine. they're starting to get power on onto many of the affected neighborhoods in tuscaloosa . the death toll went up one overnight, up to 342. here in alabama alone at least 250 people were killed. this morning officials are racing against time trying to find the hundreds who are still unaccounted for but they realize that window for finding survivors is closing very rapidly. nbc's john yang joins me now with the very latest. john, good morning.

    >> as you know you walk around this city, you walk around this state, there are so many different emotions, relief at having survived, grech at having lost a loved one. desperation about having a place to live right now this region this morning is struggling to pick up and move forward.

    >> reporter: in hardest hit alabama , volunteers scramble to deliver aid, distributing water, ice, and medical supplies to people left homeless after the record rash of devastating tornadoes. in tuscaloosa with nearly 40 dead at least 570 missing and more than 1,000 injured, a remarkable relief effort. people cleaned up what was left of their homes and crews repaired power lines .

    >> we still remain that shining city on the hill because the world has seen our faith in god and our faith in each other.

    >> reporter: those who lost all their belongings are amazed they didn't lose their lives.

    >> that's the place to be.

    >> reporter: what's for you and your wife? this is what's left of where two generations of the hicks family lived side-by-side. mike and his wife survived by taking cover in a closet. his son nolan and daughter-in-law tessa, newlyweds, by sitting in a bathtub.

    >> i looked one more time out the window. when i did, the trees just snapped.

    >> reporter: in neighborhoods like this across the region it's not just the residents digging out, it's neighbors helping neighbors, friends helping friends, families helping families. and even total strangers coming up, doing what they can to help. the certificate am for the missing are in a paper to search and rescue squads deploying in pleasant grove , alabama , hoping for the best.

    >> this is the last viable day.

    >> reporter: but fearing the worst. the psychologist specializing in disasters says the destruction will leave a mark even on those whose jobs are to help.

    >> i get very concerned about our first responders. they're well trained. they know what they're doing. but in a situation like this the impact of what's going on can be overwhelming.

    >> reporter: university of alabama where the tornadoes canceled the rest of the school year, parents picked up their children grateful that they're safe.

    >> we're just most thankful that he's okay. that's all we tear about. you can replace everything else.

    >> reporter: the obama administration is making recovery a top priority. fema is here in force and later today, lester, four cabinet secretaries will be on the ground here and in mississippi.

    >> john, you say over 500 missing in tuscaloosa alone. we're four days in now and i think we understand that people may have misconnected but at this point is there concern this death toll could rise?

    >> reporter: absolutely. the mayor does think it will rise. you have so many missing and searchers are going door-to-door or really rubble to rubble this weekend trying to make sure and see what they can find.

    >> and then we're seeing a lot of disaster relief trying to help people. i've noticed a lot of civilians that don't seem to be in any organized umbrella just doing the right thing. what have you seen?

    >> reporter: it's amazing. you go into neighborhoods and people are trying to pick through belongings or houses are destroyed and people are pushing carts along the street with water, with ice, with sandwiches, with cooked hot dogs wrapped in tinfoil. the phrase you most often hear is, what can can i do to help?

    >> it's pretty remarkable. john yang ,

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