Greg Screws reflects on April 27th 2011 near miss

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 “I’ve gotten us killed.”

There are still times I wake up in the middle of the night and say that out loud.

At the station, we knew April 27 was going to be bad.

Alan Raymond, along with Christina Meeks and Ben Smith, was one of three meteorologists working as the event approached.

The day before, April 26, in the afternoon meeting, he held up a map on his iPad and spelled it out clearly.

“People are going to die tomorrow.”

A newsroom going church quiet is an unsettling thing. Newsrooms are usually chaotic bustling environments.   But this was the sort of stillness that set off stress triggers and waves of nausea.

He repeated it.

“People are going to die tomorrow.”

I started texting my daughter. She lived in Tuscaloosa and was going to be in the thick of things there. She let me know her office was going to be watching weather coverage minute-by-minute.

Eventually, the April 26 meeting broke up and the process to fine tune our disaster coverage plan continued. We warned viewers as clearly as we could.  We spelled it out in very clear terms what the next 24 hours would be like across the state, and here in north Alabama.

The morning newscast, then, was scheduled for 5am. On April 27, a Wednesday, I got there at 2:30am and Christina had already been on for a long time. We did what is called “wall-to-wall” coverage most of the morning and into the early afternoon.

At 2:30pm, Jerry came to the studio and I left hopeful and optimistic of getting six hours of sleep before returning for the next day’s morning newscast.

At the time, I was seeing a school teacher who had two dear children. I went to Harvest and waited for her to get home.

Having been up since 1:30am, I went to sleep immediately in a recliner. I didn’t realize the power was already out until they came in around 3:45pm.  The rain had started and the wind was picking up.

As conditions started to deteriorate, I remember thinking we should jump in the van, and head to the TV station.

But we didn’t.

I forget the time exactly. The calls weren’t  going through to Emily.  I remember thinking “please text me Emily.”  I didn’t know if my texts to her were going through or not.

I went to the van and started listening to Alan being simulcast on a local radio station.

Maybe I’m wrong, but I think it was around 4:40 … maybe 4:45.

He said “Harvest. You are five minutes from this storm. This will hit you in five. You have to take cover now.”

I got out of the van and just stood there. Stood there getting hammered by the rain and wind.

And then it occurred to me….

“I’ve gotten us killed.”

By not jumping in the car, and getting away when we could, I’ve gotten us killed.

I remember the kids looking from the door with an amused look wondering why I was standing in the middle of a storm.

“We gotta get in the bathroom now.”

I remember the kids and their mom being in the bathtub. I sat on the commode lid thinking I failed a basic test of survival which was “heed the warnings.”

You always hear it sounds like a train.

It didn’t to me.

It sounded like a million trains.

It was so loud it affected my ability to think and communicate.

In my mind, I could see the walls flex.

When would this noise stop?

Was the room leaning?

Can this possibly get louder?

Then the house took a lightning strike.

I could feel the strike in my gut … vibrating across my bones.

Was the room leaning the other way now?

I remember thinking “when the roof peels of this house I don’t have a plan B.”

I said it aloud.

She said “the roof is not going to peel off of here.”

I hope not.  And I thought ….

“I’ve killed us.”

And then it stopped.

The lightning strike.

Are we on fire?

I can smell smoke. After all this, is the house on fire?

I remember getting mad. After all this, the house is going to be on fire.

Really?

For some reason, maybe for comfort, we called 9-1-1.

They were getting thousands of calls. Is anyone hurt they asked?

No.

Call back if the house is on fire they said.

I couldn’t find any fire. Or smoke.

Maybe I didn’t kill us.

We looked for smoke and fire. We didn’t find it.

A text from Emily made it through. Emily and her boyfriend were OK.

But parts of Tuscaloosa were gone.

She started texting me the landmarks that were gone and I started to cry.

I started crying over a lost Taco Casa and a Krispy Kreme?

I went back outside. The air still felt charged with electricity. It felt like if you flicked a Bic the air would ignite.

But it was over.

Later we found out there were fatalities less than a mile from the house.

Time would help.

But there are those nights still ….

“I’ve killed us.”

And It’s hard to go back to sleep.

I just pick up the remote and watch television for a while.

 

 

 

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