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Twister death toll at school raises questions

As family and friends mourned the deaths of 20 people killed by twisters, questions surfaced Friday as to whether officials at an Alabama high school could have prevented eight student deaths there.
Seniors Ben Sparks, 17, left, and Daniel Carmichael, 18, walk by the tornado-damaged school in Enterprise, Ala., on Friday.
Seniors Ben Sparks, 17, left, and Daniel Carmichael, 18, walk by the tornado-damaged school in Enterprise, Ala., on Friday.Rob Carr / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Residents of the neighborhood surrounding Enterprise High School said Friday they heard warning sirens long before a tornado on Thursday slammed into the building, crushing eight students in an avalanche of concrete and metal.

“It came real fast, but they had plenty of time to get those kids out because sirens were going off all morning,” said Pearl Green, whose 15-year-old niece attends the school and was hit in the head by a flying brick.

But school officials said they had no chance to evacuate earlier because of the approaching severe weather. And others said the carnage would have been greater if students had been outside or on the road when the storm hit.

Gov. Bob Riley defended administrators’ actions after a tour of the school.

“I don’t know of anything they didn’t do,” Riley said after stepping out of the collapsed hallway where the students died. “If I had been there, I hope I would have done as well as they did.”

The last of the bodies were removed Friday.

“Each one who was brought out, somebody would say, ‘That was a good kid,”’ said Bob Phares, assistant superintendent.

The students were among 20 people killed Thursday in Alabama, Georgia and Missouri by tornadoes contained in a line of thunderstorms that stretched from Minnesota to the Gulf Coast. The storms damaged or destroyed hundreds of homes, toppled trees and knocked down power lines. In Enterprise, a town of 22,000 people, more than 50 people were hurt.

President Bush planned to visit two of the storm-damaged areas Saturday. The destinations were still being worked out Friday with governors in the affected states.

Second warning disrupts dismissal
Warning sirens began blaring in Enterprise about 10:30 a.m. Thursday, prompting school officials to order the high school’s 1,200 students into interior halls — supposedly the safest part of the building.

Many students left school after the initial warnings, and administrators decided to dismiss classes at 1 p.m., before the worst of the weather was forecast to hit, Phares said.

But with hundreds of students still huddled inside the school, emergency management officials warned that a possible twister was on the way and advised school officials to hold students until 1:30 p.m., Phares said.

“The storm hit about 1:15,” he said. A wall in one hall collapsed, and the concrete slab roof fell on the victims.

Brittany Ammons, 18, left school about 10 minutes before the tornado struck. She said students in the halls could hear the sirens, but no one panicked.

“We weren’t really worried because we’re always hearing sirens for bad weather,” Ammons said.

Looking at the remains of their school, Ammons and three classmates wondered whether students should have been sent home after the first warnings were issued. But senior Charles Strickland said the carnage would have been far worse if students were trying to leave school during the storm.

“If they’d let us out, they’d be looking at 50 to 300 dead,” Strickland said. He pointed to a parking lot full of students’ vehicles that were thrown around by the twister, with some coming to rest against the building.

“Imagine those kids in the parking lot sitting in those cars,” English teacher Beverly Thompson said.

Mitch Edwards, spokesman for the Alabama Board of Education, said the state has a plan requiring schools to conduct weather drills and review safety plans. But the decision on whether to close schools is left to superintendents and principals.

“It’s a situation where local superintendents and principals are in position to make the best call,” Edwards said. “They try to react based on the best information available.”

Georgia evacuations, deaths
The massive storm system swept into Georgia later Thursday, with another tornado apparently touching down near the Sumter Regional Hospital in Americus, 117 miles south of Atlanta. It blew out the windows, tossing cars into trees and killing at least two people, said Buzz Weiss of the Georgia Emergency Management Agency.

Doctors, nurses and volunteers had worked into the night to evacuate dozens of patients.

“It was controlled chaos,” said Dr. Tim Powell, an anesthesiologist.

Six more people were killed in the town of Newton, Ga., including a child, and several homes were destroyed, Fire Chief Andy Belinc said early Friday.

“It’s just a blessing, frankly, that we didn’t have more fatalities than we did,” Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue said after viewing the damage Friday. He declared a state of emergency in six counties, clearing the way for state aid.

As the storm swept out to sea off South Carolina on Friday, the Coast Guard suspended a search for six boaters, saying a distress call during the storm late Thursday that their small craft was taking on water was likely a hoax. No debris or evidence of a boat was found.

In all, the National Weather Service received 31 reports of tornadoes Thursday from Missouri, Illinois, Alabama, Georgia and Florida, plus a report Friday of a waterspout near Cartaret, N.C.

The normal peak tornado season is April and May, but weather service meteorologist Dennis Feltgen said tornadoes can occur at any time.

Enterprise High School teacher Grannison Wagstaff described seeing the twister hit the school.

“I said ’Here it comes. Hit the deck,” he told CBS’s “The Early Show” Friday. “I turned around and I could actually see the tornado coming toward me.”

“It was in a split second that we sat down and started to cover ourselves before the storm hit,” added 17-year-old Kira Simpson, who lost four friends to the storm. “Glass was breaking. It was loud.”

“It’s like a bad dream. I have to keep reminding myself that it actually happened,” she said.

A section of roof and a wall near 17-year-old senior Erin Garcia collapsed on her classmates.

“I was just sitting there praying the whole time,” Erin said. “It sounded like a bunch of people trying to beat the wall down. People didn’t know where to go. They were trying to lead us out of the building.

“I kept seeing people with blood on their faces.”

Outside, debris from the school was strewn around the neighborhood, where cars were flipped or tossed atop each other. Searchers pulled the final body, a boy, from the high school’s wreckage around 1:30 a.m. Friday.

Mayor Kenneth Boswell said officials had yet to determine where the school’s students would attend classes for the rest of the year.

Georgia damage
In Sumter County, Ga., home of former President Jimmy Carter, Sumter Regional Hospital was in shambles Friday morning. Officials weren’t sure whether the people injured and the two reported dead in town were inside the hospital when the storm struck, Weiss said.

Between 40 and 60 homes were also damaged in nearby Clay County, on the Alabama line, Weiss said. Another tornado killed a man in a mobile home in Taylor County, north of Americus, county Emergency Management Agency Director Gary Lowe said.

Around Americus, the storm uprooted trees and knocked down power lines. Several homes and businesses were destroyed. At Cheek Memorial Church, the wooden steeple had toppled.

Marcia Wilson, who lives across the street from the Church, said she heard a huge roar as the storm went through.

“It felt like the whole house was fixing to fall in,” she said. “All I could do was pray that God take care of us and he did.”