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Alabama students recall chaos of deadly twister

At Enterprise High School, time is measured by the tornado that slammed into the school a year ago Saturday, killing eight students when a hallway collapsed.
/ Source: The Associated Press

At Enterprise High School, time is measured by the tornado that slammed into the school a year ago Saturday, killing eight students when a hallway collapsed.

"Our timeline here is the tornado. If you say you were in a car accident, the first question is always 'Was it before or after the tornado?'" said Josie Robinson, a 16-year-old junior.

A year later, the community gathered Friday night for two memorial services. Students said they have no trouble remembering vivid details of that moment when lives were changed.

Amanda Baney was huddled with other students in a different part of the hallway that crumpled, crushing her classmates. People were screaming as the tornado ripped apart the building, but she was mostly worrying about her mom, who was coming to pick her up.

Baney remembers pandemonium breaking out when it seemed the worst was over.

"There were people crying. People were panicking. Someone was saying there was a gas leak," said Baney, a 17-year-old senior. "People who had been there forever didn't know their way out of the building."

The ruins of what was Enterprise High and adjacent Hillcrest Elementary School have been cleared. The only tangible reminders of the school are the football stadium, which stands beside the empty site, and the Wildcat tracks painted on the street that once led to the school.

But reminders of the tornado abound in the surrounding neighborhood, where repairs continue on many homes. There are vacant lots where houses stood a year ago.

In rememberance
About 1,000 students, faculty members and relatives of those killed packed the Hillcrest Baptist Church on Friday night for the first of the memorial services.

Two services were scheduled, the second for the community, because officials believed there would not be enough room in the spacious church's sanctuary for the anticipated crowd, Enterprise High School Principal Rick Rainer said.

During an opening prayer, the Rev. Billy Joy said the service was marking "the anniversary of a day we'll never forget."

Rainer read a letter from President Bush to the residents of the southern Alabama city.

"You demonstrated a spirit that can not be broken," the president's letter said.

Rainer helped pull rubble off students in the collapsed hallway. Hillcrest Baptist turned into a shelter for students in the frantic moments after the storm.

Since then, students have been attending classes across town at Enterprise-Ozark Community College. Classes most days run from 11 a.m. to around 4:45 p.m. to work around the college's classes, but a more typical schedule may be in place in the fall.

Working through some problems
Construction is expected to begin in the next week or so on a new elementary school and later this year on a new high school.

"The kids are resilient. That's the saving grace. They have made the best of a very tough situation," Rainer said, sitting in his small office at the community college.

He said the strange hours have caused scheduling problems for parents and extracurricular activities. During football season, he said, the band practiced at 7 a.m. on fields around town, "wherever we could find a piece of grass."

Students say it's hard to get used to life at a community college, where they don't have high school traditions such as a regular lunch hour and time to hang out by their lockers.

"Most of the time you feel like you're in someone else's house and you're afraid to touch anything," said Rachel Ertsgard, a 17-year-old junior.

'Sad feelings are coming back'
Matt Dye, a 16-year-old junior, said the anniversary is almost like having to live through the storm a second time.

"The feelings I had the day of the tornado are coming back again, all of the sad feelings are coming back," Dye said.

But despite the new surroundings and the strange schedule, Robinson, the 16-year-old junior, said the tornado has brought together students and helped them forget some of the normal pettiness that divides high schools.

"We're really getting along a lot better," she said. "Oh there's still cliques here, but we're all bonding together better."