Sheriff, deputies recall how community came together after tornado outbreak
Brent Davis knew where the homes used to be.
The deputy had stopped his Lee County sheriff’s car on Alabama 51, south of Lee Road 38 in Beauregard, near a gentle slope where trees and homes once stood against the horizon.
All that remained was a debris field, with the rubble of downed trees mixing with walls and doors and fixtures ripped from concrete foundations or mobile home frames.
It was Sunday, March 3, and Davis was among the officers rushing into the neighborhood after a tornado had just made landfall.
Surveying the damage left behind, he noticed some high-powered electrical lines on the ground nearby. Looking across them, he saw people running through the debris.
He was wondering whether the lines still had power, when a barefoot woman came running from the wreckage, tripped over the lines and fell into them.
“She jumped right back up, and continued on running, got on 51, and started heading north on 51,” he recalled.
That’s how he learned the lines were dead.
He grabbed his first-aid kit, left his car, crossed into the debris, and turned up the slope.
Nobody could have imagined the force of 170 mph winds. Residents could not have prepared for a disaster like this, one that would kill 23 people.
It’s been a little more than one month since the tornado ripped through the Lee County community, and local law enforcement — the ones who were first on scene — shared their stories from the ground in Beauregard on March 3, 2019.
They described it as “chaos” – unreal, unimaginable, impossible to conceive.
“How do you prepare for houses on top of houses in the middle of the road, and you’ve got people on the other side needing help?” asked Cpl. Casey Fuller.
“There’s no practice,” said Deputy Dakota Smith.
After the tornado hit about 2:20 p.m., CST, some officers still drove into heavy rain and raging winds, able to go about 20 mph.
“You just couldn’t see in front of you trying to get there, and then as soon as we get there, it just comes to a sudden stop, and it’s real gray,” said Fuller. “It doesn’t seem real. It seems like something out of a movie scene.”
Lt. David Tompkins, the shift supervisor, was in Beulah when the storm hit, and remembered the deluge of 911 calls coming in as he rushed toward Beauregard.
“The first call came on Lee Road 39 that people were trapped in a house, and I’m like, ‘Oh gosh’ … And then calls and calls and calls started coming in: It’s going down Lee Road 39, then next Lee Road 38, and then Lee Road 40.”
On his way, he called his captain, who was off that Sunday. “I called him and said, ‘The reports are Beauregard is destroyed.’ I said, ‘Get me everyone.’ And he said, ‘OK.’”
Lee County law enforcement converged on Beauregard, along Alabama 51, and discovered that from there, they had to proceed on foot, through the tangled piles of trees and rubble.
“You’d be driving down the road, and literally there were 50 to 75 trees across the road,” said Smith. “When we were doing the search parties, it would take five minutes to walk five yards, because you had full-grown trees, 50 at a time, blowing down, mixing homes and everything else with that debris.”
‘You don’t know where you’re at. Everything’s gone.’
Reaching the areas hardest hit, particularly on Lee Road 38, officers encountered a surreal environment, devoid of landmarks, eerie in sight and sound.
“The first thing I remember about getting there, we’ve all heard of busted gas lines,” Deputy Steve Meadows said.“Multiply that by 40, I guess. You had gas blowing everywhere.”
Cpl. David Gamper found dazed residents who appeared lost.
“I remember seeing citizens out there that had lived there their whole lives… They were walking down the road. They didn’t know which way they were walking on the road. Things were so messed up they couldn’t recognize where they were at.”
Tompkins, who went to Lee Road 40, said it also was unrecognizable: “You don’t know where you’re at. Everything’s gone; there’s no mailboxes; the houses are gone; the trailers are gone.”
Meadows came to a rise on Lee Road 38, where he found two bodies beside the road, and he could see down into a shallow, debris-filled depression. He started moving downhill, where more of those killed in the storm were discovered. He was joined by other Lee County deputies and first responders from Beauregard and Opelika fire departments.
Meadows heard people “hollering and screaming for their loved ones.”
Sheriff Jay Jones, who in the national news would become the face of Lee County, remembered how fast the death toll rose:
“The initial count after the first hour or so was 14 individuals, and then as the afternoon wore on, the number started climbing, and I remember all of us were thinking, ‘Gosh, I hope this number doesn’t keep getting higher and higher.’”
‘Baby, don’t look’
From where he had parked on Highway 51, south of Lee Road 38, Davis angled uphill, northward toward the county road, through piles of debris, calling for anyone who might be trapped.
“I remember other people were there with me, and I remember telling them, ‘OK, we stop and we call … and then you have to stop and you have to listen.’”
He started to crawl into some of the larger piles, but a volunteer firefighter cautioned him to back off. He didn’t want Davis to become trapped himself.
When he reached the crest of the slope, he was stunned.
“It was bad. It was so bad, knowing what homes used to be there … It was shocking. I don’t think words can justify it.”
He saw an older man standing on the other side of 38, and went to him.
“He had a shocked look on his face,” Davis said.
The man had discovered a young man’s body and wanted to know what to do.
As Davis talked to his supervisor on the phone, he stood upon an empty concrete slab, turned, and saw three people tangled in the rubble.
He yelled for help and rushed to them, finding an older woman and two little girls. He checked each for a pulse, and found two were dead.
One girl was alive.
As he and other rescuers pulled the wreckage off her, she came to, and they asked her name. “Kayla,” she replied, and asked what had happened.
“Baby, don’t look,” he told the girl, later identified as 11-year-old Kayla Grimes. “Keep your eyes shut. Don’t look. I’m going to get you out of here.”
A former Army medic, Davis tried to determine whether she could be moved. She said her leg hurt, and he saw a puncture wound and apparent fracture above her left ankle, but nothing to indicate a spinal injury.
Davis and another man picked her up and took turns handing her over piles of rubble, one climbing across for the hand-off before the other followed, to eventually carry her up to the road. There, Davis picked out two pieces of wood and fashioned a splint for her leg.
With help from an Opelika police officer, Kayla was taken by ambulance to the hospital.
Davis went back to search and rescue, working until his flashlight died, and then until his spare flashlight died.
Along the highway
All along the highway, the rescues went on that afternoon, with first-responders, volunteers and neighbors carrying the injured to the open road to be ferried out.
Sgt. Jessica Daley helped a man get medical treatment for a 5-year-old boy, who was bleeding from the ear.
She had heard ambulances would be stationed at Beauregard High School, just up the highway. She rushed the boy there, dropped him off, and rushed back.
“I knew I could get him there faster than they could come to me,” she said.
That’s the way it went, until the blocked county roads were cleared, she said.
“It was drop them off at the ambulance and go back out to the next spot and just see what all we can do.”
Highway 51 became the lifeline for evacuating the injured.
“The goal was to try and get everybody toward Highway 51, if possible,” said Cpl. Gamper. “We could get medical help, regroup, have somebody stage there to get all the information regarding missing persons, and all that stuff, so we can at least begin our search.”
Like 38, Lee Roads 39 and 40 also were impassible.
“We actually pulled a guy out of a car (on Lee Road 40), and put him on a backboard and loaded him on a side-by-side … and drove him to where an ambulance can get to him on the road,” Daley said.
No one knew exactly what to do, yet everyone did it, without being told.
Besides the sheriff’s office and the Beauregard Volunteer Fire Department, neighbors, businesses, and just about anyone with a tractor or chainsaw or four-wheeler joined in moving the debris and taking out the injured.
“It didn’t matter what kind of skills you had,” Daley said. “Everybody had the skills to bring people out. I’ve never seen a response like that from such a community, department, anybody.”
Capt. Chris Wallace said what stays with him is the community coming together in the face of chaos.
“It didn’t matter who you were. Just everybody working together and looking for work, and making it happen,” he said.
Neighboring law enforcement and rescue agencies came without being asked, including Auburn and Opelika police and fire, and the Russell County and Macon County sheriff’s offices.
“We did not ask for them, and I’ve made that comment several times,”Jones said. “We didn’t have to call. They knew and they came without being asked, and I’m not surprised.”
Nightfall — and the death toll
Those responding to the tornado said they remained in crisis mode into the night, until 10 or 11 p.m., when they had to pull back, lest they risk injury.
“There was so much unknown out there as far as open wells and stuff like that,” said Fuller. “It was too dangerous, because there’s no power down there... . You can’t light the area up enough for it to be safe.”
Jones told his staff to set up a mobile command post at Alabama 51 and Lee Road 38. Sanford Middle School became a makeshift morgue, and a rallying point for first-responders coming from outside the county. The swarm of media invading the area was directed to Beauregard High School. Providence Baptist Church, already a shelter for those who lost their homes, became the place for coordinating volunteers and collecting donations.
As the county’s chief law enforcement officer, Jones had to secure the area and keep track of who went in and out — partly to prevent looting, and partly to ensure no one else was injured or lost.
As darkness fell that Sunday, Gamper was able to drive down Lee Road 38, where one clear, winding lane had been opened through the wreckage. He used his car’s PA system to tell people the area would be closed off for the night.
But the search did not end after dark.
Drones with heat sensors still were flying over the debris. Hoping to save anyone still alive, rescuers went out to investigate the heat signals the drones picked up that night, Jones said: “We located some animals, and we located a hot water heater.”
They found no one else. The death toll settled at 23. Though dozens initially were reported missing, that number soon dwindled. Besides the immediate work of sheriff’s investigators and Coroner Bill Harris in finding and identifying the dead, the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency came in to help track down those unaccounted for.
In the ensuing torrent of follow-up work, national media attention and flood of aid that poured in from outside Lee County, the days afterward began to blur.
Jay Jones didn’t sleep for days. Despite his core responsibilities, he daily briefed a mob of media at the high school, updated the death toll and number of missing, and answered every question.
“It was good to see that,” Tompkins said of his boss’ stepping into the spotlight. “It was good to see people just step into roles and handle it. I don’t know how he does it without sleep.”
Jones said that on the following Wednesday afternoon, after the Sunday tornado, he decided finally to lie back and take a rest in a comfortable chair in his office. He fell sound asleep.
Looking back, he agreed all the first responders encountered chaos, which is all that could be expected from a storm that so shaved the ground it left nothing taller than a foot high, in some places.
But it was the officers’ initiative and training that helped them adapt to that chaos, to immediately act without orders and do what had to be done, just as neighboring agencies acted, and the residents who were able to help acted, without being asked.
“Be adaptable,” he said, when asked for lessons from the storm. “That is critical. Be adaptable, flexible. Because it’s never going to go the way you planned.”