North Alabama family shares story of devastating loss 10 years ago in Enterprise tornado

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PRICEVILLE, Ala. - March 1 is a tough day for Dirk and Kathy Strunk. Not just this day, but many in the last 10 years since the day they and other families suffered tremendous loss in south Alabama.

The Strunks live in Priceville now, but on March 1, 2007, they were in Enterprise when an EF-4 tornado hit Enterprise High School.  Katie Strunk, 16, was one of eight students who died and dozens more were hurt when the twister hit the school with 170 mile-per-hour winds. Students took cover in a hallway when the roof collapsed.

Katie Strunk

Katie Strunk

"The weather was supposed to be bad," Dirk Strunk recalled.  But that day, school was still in session.  He was working at New Brockton High School where his son was a student.  His wife and daughter were at Enterprise High.

"We were in the process of letting out of school, and that's when the sirens went off," Dirk recalled. "I just happened to be standing outside, and one of the police officers were saying Enterprise just got hit."

He and his son jumped in the car and took off.  "It took us an hour and a half to go eight miles," Dirk recalled.

They ended up at their church in Enterprise. Dirk took his son David inside to safety and ran the last mile and a half to Enterprise High.

Dirk Strunk

Dirk Strunk

"As we're running up the road, you're seeing people in pickup trucks carrying people to the hospital."  Fear began to creep in.

"I felt Katie was going to be fine, I thought that Kathy would be the one. It was a lose/lose either way. And you just get there.. and it's.. it was like a bomb went off," Dirk said.

But standing amidst the rubble, was Kathy.  "Seeing her in the parking lot, the relief knowing she's okay, but not seeing Katie there..."

Dirk and Kathy have come a long way since losing Katie. But he still thinks of his little girl often.

"I picked on her all the time -- but as she was getting in the car that morning, I told her I loved her before she left. I know she knows how I felt."

Strunk says schools handle tornado threats differently since that day.  He likes it that many schools release kids long before severe weather arrives.

Kathy's Story

Kathy Strunk was just feet away from their daughter when the tornado hit the school. She was a teacher, and she and her students had spent most of the day in the hallway. It was their "safe space."

Kathy Strunk

Kathy Strunk

"A lot of camaraderie in the halls, kids talking... we were out there for hours," she recalled.  Her daughter was there with her.

"Since she was in the classroom next to me, we were able to talk to her quite a bit."

Katie needed to go to the restroom, and because of the tornado threat, she had to have an escort.  So Kathy took her.

"We came back, I asked her if she wanted to get her lunch out of her locker. She didn't," Kathy recalled. "I went into my room for just a moment, and had a bite of my lunch. And in that moment the sirens started to go off again."

Within minutes, the lights went out.

"You could begin to hear the glass break. Every pane of glass. Every window. Interior, exterior. The sky lights above us. You could feel cold air whistling through the halls. You could hear students gasp, because we knew. This is it."

Kathy wrapped her arms around three of her students and braced for the worst.

"Then you started to hear screams. I have never known such terror," she said.

It was so bad, she couldn't even pray.  Debris was flying.

"And I looked up and I looked over my right shoulder and I saw there was not a building there any more. And I knew in that moment that my daughter was gone. And as it cleared we stood up and I saw there was a wall and a ceiling on top of her. And I knew there was no way she had survived."

"I thought about all the ways I could have saved her. What if I had insisted we had gone and gotten her lunch, what if we had gone to the restroom a few minutes later?"

She stood there, helpless.

"One of my students came back for me. And he said it's time to go. We've got to get out of here."

The building was being evacuated.

"He took me, and put his arm around me and he led me out. And as we were leaving the building I looked down and realized he has blood all over him."

After that day, Kathy left teaching and eventually the family moved from Enterprise to north Alabama. She wasn't sure she'd ever return to the classroom. There were too many memories. Too much pain.

But she had a little nudge.

"I got letters. Good old-fashioned snail mail from former students, teachers telling me I needed to go back," Kathy said.

And she did. It's a decision she's never regretted.

"I had a dream where I had gone into my room at Decatur High and opened the door, and Katie was sitting in the second row. She was smiling at me. I felt like that was a little gift from God."

Kathy has been teaching for Decatur City Schools for seven years now. The Strunks say their faith and the Enterprise community are to thank for bringing them through such a tough time.