Images courtesy of Jennifer Walker-James
Nine Years, Nine Lives:
A Tribute to Those Swept Away March 1, 2007
| published March 1, 2016 |
By Jennifer Walker-James,
Thursday Review features writer
Nine years, nine lives.
Senior year: the climactic era of high school careers filled with all the pomp and circumstance of commencement and finality. First you are crowned with all the concessions of seniority. Then there is homecoming. And there are all the lasts; you know, the last football game, the last basketball game, the last softball game, the last band competition, etc. Then come the formals, pageants, dances, and of course, the bedazzled crinoline and tuxedo-studded affair that every girl plans in conjunction with their wedding—prom. Then alas, graduation echoes the celebration of one’s rite of passage into young adulthood. At least, that’s how it is supposed to be. Sadly, that would not be so for seventeen year olds Mikey Tompkins and Jamie Vidensek, two of eight students killed when a massive EF4 tornado swept through Enterprise High School on March 1, 2007. For their fellow classmate, Lauren (nee Erdlitz) DeShazo, the epic luster of senior year was marred by a finality no one ever wants to face. DeShazo, now 26, has come forward with her story to illustrate the tragedy and ongoing healing of the community she called home.
“It started off as a pretty normal day,” she told us. “Every day on my way to school, I would stop at a gas station up the street from my house. I’d always get a Diet Coke, a Zebra Cakes—a very nutritious breakfast,” Lauren pauses, smiling, “and a pack of gum. This morning was no different. There was talk about bad weather coming in later in the day but no one really gave it any thought. I was a senior that year so I parked in what we called blue parking lot. That morning was like every other day at school. I can’t remember what classes I had then besides English. It was break time though, and I was hanging out on 3rd hall as usual with my friends. It was raining outside but again, no one thought anything about it.”
That fateful Thursday started out like any other for the bustling small city of Enterprise, Alabama. There was school to be held and work to be done. Sadly, eight sets of parents would drop their kids off at Enterprise High School only to return hours later to retrieve their lifeless bodies from the rubble. There was no ominous foreboding of the nightmare looming on the horizon that morning. As the day progressed, slate colored skies brought with them balmy winds and pounding rain. Weather reports flooded the airwaves warning citizens against the potential for the severe thunderstorms and tornadoes, but no one was bothered.
Natives of this region are no strangers to the stark fluctuations of inclement weather that plagues the Southeast year-round. Severe thunderstorms are common, as are heavy periods of lightning and damaging winds; even small tornadoes can occur with regularity across the rural South. Still, no one suspected that a massive killer tornado would rip through the city, and those sitting directly in its path were the least likely to fear such a catastrophe.
Unlike other area schools that were closing that morning, Enterprise City School officials announced they would be closing the schools instead at 1:00 p.m. due to the threat of severe weather—a decision that would later be criticized. At 1:08 p.m., just as parents started to arrive to pick up their children, only a few miles away a monster tornado had already spiraled down from the sky near the Enterprise Municipal Airport.
“When the bell rang to go to what I think I remember as 3rd period, I went down the hallway to what we call short hall, which was really the second hallway,” Lauren explained. “The school was set up like the letter E but with an extra wing off the side. I don’t know why exactly, but I stopped to talk to Jamie Vindensek on my way to English. I don’t remember what we said or even why we were talking. We didn’t really hang out with the same group of people so it wasn’t like we were really friends. From what I knew of her though, and from past classes with her, she was always nice.” DeShazo pauses, reflectively.
“Anyway, on to English. Luckily, I had my best friend Baily in that class with me. We had a sub teacher that day so we had busy work to do. Our classroom had a wall that was just windows that looked out into a little grassy area and the outside brick of 3rd hall. I noticed the rain was picking up and it got dark pretty fast. Not long after that the siren bell at the school was going off so we all had to get in the hallways. Baily and I grabbed our phones out of our purses and took a seat on the floor against the wall. Of course all the kids were talking about and carrying on.”
Still unaware of the monster tornado barreling toward them, Lauren and her fellow classmates congregated in the halls and commenced with routine chitchat, daily banter, and even jokes about the weather drill.
“Another teacher came down the hallway saying this was not a drill,” Lauren recalls. “We were under a tornado warning and we were to take it seriously. Things got a bit more serious for me when I saw student and after student getting checked out of school and leaving. Our class had shrunk down to about half. A few times the lights flickered and the loud rumbles of thunder made some kids scream. Baily and I were talking when I saw my neighbor’s mom running down the hall yelling for her child. I hollered out to her but she didn’t hear me and kept on running. Then, for some unknown reason, my English teacher showed up. She looked panicked.”
As the sirens began to wail their harrowing song outside, everyone slowly began to realize the gravity of the situation. This was no practice drill. This was no extra precaution. There was a tornado—a monstrous one. And it was spinning at their doorstep, growing wider and more ferocious, and, as it turned out, moving inexorably closer with a deadly bead on the school.
“The tornado sirens were going off outside and everyone got pretty quiet. I looked around and there was a pretty good gap between me and the person to my side. Baily and I were sitting behind the door and something told me we needed to move. Thank goodness we did because if we had not of, our faces would be plastered on the backside of the door. So, we scooted down a little and I remember looking at the girl sitting across the hall from me. She was holding her knees to her chest and had her eyes tightly closed.” Lauren pauses somberly to gather her thoughts, flashes of memory no doubt shuttling through her head.
“About that time, some kid came running around the corner screaming ‘It’s here, it’s here!’ Suddenly, the lights flickered off, the closed classroom doors were thrashing against the walls, and you could hear glass shattering. The lights in the hallway crashed to the floor. The girl I was looking at moments earlier was screaming. I remember jumping on top of Baily and hearing her scream in my ear. I just kept telling her it was all going to be okay and a held on to her as tightly as I could. It didn’t last very long. Really felt like 20 or so seconds before it was all over.”
Darkness fell as the winds began to rise. Shattering glass and shrieks of terror pierced the vacuum of eerie silence that had blanketed the halls seconds earlier. At 1:12 p.m., time itself slowed to an unnerving crawl as the 1500 foot wide wedge-shaped tornado churned Enterprise High School and the surrounding neighborhood into a horrific swath of devastation.
“When I opened my eyes and stood up, everyone was crying. The hallways were dark and glass was everywhere. Teachers were asking if everyone was alright while looking around at the damage. The door to our classroom was open and Baily and I stepped in. I looked out where the windows used to be to see that there was no 3rd hall. The wall was completely collapsed. We grabbed our purses and stepped back into the hallway. The teachers were directing us to go across the parking lots to get to the church that was next door. I will never forget what happened next, and to this day I regret it and feel awful,” Lauren says, fighting back tears and emotion.
“Baily and I ran into my best guy friend’s little sister,” Lauren tells us. “I didn’t talk to her much, but we were always nice and spoke when we saw each other. I immediately asked her if she was okay and then I gave her a hug. She was crying, saying she couldn’t get ahold of her boyfriend, A.J. I said, ‘I’m sure he’s okay. Everyone is trying to use their cell phones now and the towers are just busy.’ With what little reassurance I gave her, we all walked towards 1st hall.”
A.J. (Andrew J. Jackson) was not okay, however. He was among seven other students killed instantly when the walls of the school’s 3rd hall collapsed, raining bricks and other debris on top of them. Like a scene from the apocalypse, Lauren and her friends emerged from the ruins of the hall where they sat to begin their trek to a makeshift gathering shelter at the nearby Hillcrest Baptist Church.
“Some students we passed had blood on them from cuts. I never did see anyone with a real serious injury.” DeShazo went on to describe the aftermath as an apocalyptic scene.
“We had to pass the lunchroom to get outside. The tables were all pushed to one side and there was debris all over the floor. I don’t know if they were power lines or phone lines, but there were cords lying on the floor that we had to step over. First hall wasn’t really damaged much. I remember looking down at the Wildcat that was on the floor (I don’t know to call it an emblem or a symbol. It was made of tile into the floor and you weren’t allowed to walk on it.) It had dirt and little limbs scattered across it. The metal front doors were broken off the hinges.”
As Lauren and her classmates waded carefully through shards of debris, realization swept over them that what they had just experienced was not a typical tornado. At more than 1500 feet wide, and with wind speeds in excess of 175 miles per hour, the twister that had just raked its way through the town was one of the largest ever measured in Alabama, or anywhere in the Deep South.
“Outside, in front of the school, trees were down, all the cars parked out front had the windows busted out of them. I tried calling my mom on my cellphone, but it died. That was just my luck,” she adds, sardonically.
“We all walked across the parking lot and down the stairs that lead to orange parking lot. Like the other parking area, all the cars there had the windows busted. If you looked up the hill you could see the building where Drivers Ed was held. The metal roof was mangled. It was sprinkling rain while we all walked to the church. All you could hear was glass crunching under everyone’s footsteps. There wasn’t a lot of talking going on. When we got to the church everyone was looking for anyone they knew. I hugged a friend of mine and made she sure was okay. She was terrified and trying to find her best friend. About that time, Baily and I freaked trying to think of where our friend Casey was. We hadn’t seen her since before break and we hadn’t talked to her since. I borrowed a phone and dialed Casey’s number as fast as I could. I sighed with relief when she answered. She lived maybe two football fields away from the school. I asked if she was okay and if her house was okay…”
Reunions and rescue attempts were soon thwarted as another storm system announced its impending arrival. “There was a guy yelling to all of us to get inside the building that another tornado was coming our way, that it was headed towards Daulphin Jr. High (that was just a mile or two up the road.) I then called Justin, my boyfriend at the time, and freaked out on him telling him to call his mom and make sure she was okay. Everyone was rushing inside even more scared than we were before. They made us all sit in the pews. There were groups of students praying, others frantically talking on their phones, and some just sitting there. Parents came in screaming their child’s name. Some asking if anyone knew where their child was.”
There had been warnings about another tornado associated with the second cell (luckily, though there was more high wind, there were no secondary twisters). As soon as the second line of rain and wind had passed, pulling the last of the rain with it, rescue and recovery efforts were fast underway. Word had quickly spread through emergency responders, police circuits, official channels, and on the radio. Families and loved ones drove or ran toward the school, and poured into the church, searching for their children, praying they were okay. For most of them, their prayers were answered when their child came forward in response to their name being called out. For others, however, a new nightmare unfolded when their child’s name was met with silence.
Restless and shaken from the traumatic experience they had endured, Lauren could not sit and watch the painful roll call much longer.
“Baily and I sat there and just watched, not saying anything,” she says, “I’m not sure how long we were there but we eventually looked at each other and decided to leave. There was a Food World grocery store not far from the church we were going to walk to and Justin lived a few blocked behind it. So, we just got up and left. No one tried to stop us. No one said anything to us. There were cars parked everywhere. The roads were completely packed. Some people were parked in yards. It was like something you’d see in a movie. Like a scene on a busy New York City street in a film where everyone is running like crazy and all the cars abandoned. We kind of knew a guy that lived down the hill we had to walk down so we stopped to see if he was home.”
“Luckily for us, he was home,” Lauren says. “He gave us a ride to the grocery store. What was on a normal day two minute drive from his house turned out to be a good ten plus minute drive as we had to avoid fallen trees in the road and other cars that were rushing to get towards the school. He dropped us off in the grocery store parking lot and all the business owners in the complex were standing outside. The movie rental place let us use the phone to call Baily’s cousin to come get us. When he got there, he asked a few questions and drove us to my house. He said he was glad we were both okay as he dropped us off.”
Many phones lines were down, and some cell towers damaged or destroyed. Power was out in many areas of the town. With no means of communication amidst the pandemonium that ensued, it seemed like an eternity would pass before Lauren could be reunited with her family. Thankfully, that eternity turned out to be only hours.
“My neighbor, practically my other mother, came flying out of her house towards us. She wrapped us both in tight hugs and was glad we were alright. She had sent her son and another kid from the street up to the school to find me. While getting a lecture from her about leaving the church, she called my mom to let her know I was alive and at the house. She also called her son to tell him to come back home. My dad and brother came barreling down the street towards our house. They were at my friend Casey’s house yelling for me and she told them I was at the church, where someone told them Baily and I had left. I don’t think they even put their vehicles in park before they jumped out of them. I remember my dad wrapping his arms around Baily and saying how thankful he was she was alright. My brother squeezed me so tightly when he saw me. He lived in Troy and had somehow made it all the way home when he heard the tornado hit the high school. A little while later my mom came home. She hugged Baily and me while crying and laughing. She was a nurse at another school then and couldn’t leave until all her students with medial needs were picked up by a parent,” Lauren adds with a smile, “She told me she should beat my butt for leaving and not telling anyone where we were and for letting my cell phone die.”
Adrenaline sometimes has a way of blocking trauma from settling in until our bodies are physically able to handle it. For Lauren, the events of that fateful afternoon wouldn’t suffer her to tears until later that night when realization of everything came crashing in at once.
“That night I remember some other neighbors of ours that lived at the top of the street came down. We had a radio turned on listening for updates about the school and students they couldn’t find. It had started raining again so we were also listening out for more watches or warnings. The National Guard had uniforms on the main road by my house. A curfew had been put in place. My mom gave me some kind of medicine to calm me down and make me go to sleep but it didn’t work. I couldn’t stop crying. I kept telling my mom she didn’t know what it was like to go through such an event. It was like the whole day hit me at once and I could finally be scared. I wasn’t just scared about the day’s event but for the parents who were still looking for their child. I ended up sleeping in my parents’ closet that night.”
Initial reports suggested that as many as 18 people were killed in the Enterprise tornado. As rescue and recovery attempts stretched into the night hours, people in the surrounding area were glued to their TV sets, radios, and phones for updates on any of those still missing. By midnight, the death toll had settled to nine confirmed. Eight students, ages 16 and 17, and one elderly woman who lived near the school, were lost and a community was left in shambles. The rest of the citizens from the city also known as “The City of Progress,” emerged from the rubble irrevocably changed in the aftermath of the deadly EF4 tornado. Many found hope and absolution in the services rendered by total strangers as surrounding communities joined arms to aid and comfort this shaken city.
“The next few days were a blur. I remember going to blue parking lot and looking for my car. It was flipped upside down and sitting atop someone else’s vehicle. There was a 2x4 sticking out of the front windshield. Almost everything I had in it was gone, except my CD case was underneath the driver’s seat and the purple monkey Justin’s parents gave me for Valentine’s Day was still wrapped around the emergency break. President Bush showed up a day or two later. Names of the students who were killed were being released as they were found and confirmed. I knew some of them. I had a Spanish class with Ryan the year before. Jamie and Mikey were supposed to graduate with us. I knew of A.J. because he was dating my friend’s sister but also because he and Ryan were best friends. I knew Katie was a friend of a friend of mine but that her mom was a teacher at the school. I didn’t know the other three students.” Lauren pauses again, fighting tears, “As the days passed, funeral arrangements were announced and everyone just tried to cope with what had happened.”
NASA satellite imagery, some of it taken three and four days after the tornado sliced through the town, show the devastating effects wrought on the school and areas nearby, with cars and trucks scattered, smashed, or heaped together in jumbles, rooftops missing or collapsed, more than 100 trees toppled, utility poles down, and a wide path of destruction along the path of the twister. The tornado left a path of shredded debris or flattened structures roughly 250 yards wide.
Two days later, on March 3, 2007, President George W. Bush, accompanied by Alabama Governor Bob Riley and other officials, took a personal tour of the school’s mangled remains. Visibly shaken by the scenes of devastation at Enterprise High School, the President vowed to offer whatever aid the federal government could offer. Also spurred into action was famed TV chef, Rachel Ray, whose delectable culinary talents were put to the test when she hosted an all-expenses-paid prom for Enterprise High School a month later. Her efforts were joined by singer-songwriter Mandy Moore, whose surprise performance was met with shock and elation from the unsuspecting seniors.
In the years since, a new school has been built at a different location, houses have been repaired or rebuilt, trees have started to dot the barren landscape again, and lives have somewhat mended. In the footprints of the high school’s original location, now stands a memorial in honor of the victims of that fateful day. For those like Lauren, who were affected by the insurmountable nightmare that happened on March 1, 2007, life would move on with a new sense of the word “normal”—one laden with voids left by the absence of those lost in the winds of tragedy.
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