BEAUREGARD, Ala. (AP) — The youngest victim was 6, the oldest 89. One extended family lost seven members.
The 23 people killed in the nation’s deadliest tornado in nearly six years came into focus Tuesday when the coroner finished identifying them and released their names.
They included 6-year-old Armando Hernandez Jr., known as “AJ,” torn from his father’s arms two days after singing in his first-grade class musical; 10-year-old Taylor Thornton, who loved horses and was visiting a friend’s home when the twister struck; and David Wayne Dean, 53, nicknamed “Roaddog” because of his love for Harley-Davidson motorcycles.
“Just keep those families in your prayers,” Lee County Coroner Bill Harris said, two days after the disaster.
The search for victims, pets and belongings in and around the devastated rural community of Beauregard continued amid the din of beeping heavy machinery and whining chainsaws. But Sheriff Jay Jones said the list of the missing had shrunk from dozens to just seven or eight.
“We’ve got piles of rubble that we are searching just to make sure,” said Opelika Fire Chief Byron Prather Jr. “We don’t think we’ll find nobody there, but we don’t want to leave any stone unturned.”
Four children were killed, ages 6, 8, 9 and 10. Prather said the mother of 6-year-old AJ rushed to the scene Sunday in distress.
“She just said her child was swept from the father’s arms,” Prather said. “A mother’s love for her child.
How do you tell a mom that she can’t go look for her child? She went and tried to find her child, like everybody else.”
Dean’s body was found by his son in a neighbor’s yard after the twister demolished his mobile home.
“He was done and gone before we got to him,” said his sobbing widow, Carol Dean, who was at work at Walmart when the storm hit. “My life is gone. He was the reason I lived, the reason that I got up.”
The tornado was an EF4 with winds estimated at 170 mph (274 kph) and chewed a path of destruction up to nine-tenths of a mile (1.4 kilometers) wide in Alabama for nearly 27 miles (43 kilometers), scraping up the earth in a phenomenon known as “ground rowing,” the National Weather Service said.
Ninety people were injured, authorities said. Most had been released from the hospital as of Monday.
Along the two-lane country road where some of the victims died, firefighters used heavy machinery to overturn pieces of houses that were blown into a gulley. A car sat atop the remains of one house. A red-brick foundation was all that was left at another lot.
The search took its toll around Beauregard, an unincorporated area of roughly 10,000 people near the Georgia line. Church chaplain Ike Mathews walked down a road lined with broken trees and debris as he went to check on members of his congregation and emergency workers.
“Yesterday I talked to some team members who had found bodies. They’re hurting. The community is torn up. They started crying talking about it,” said Mathews, an associate pastor at Rising Star Missionary Baptist Church.
Many of the people living in the area are senior citizens who moved to the country after retiring from textile mills or an old magnetic-tape manufacturing plant that closed years ago, Mathews said.
“They start with a mobile home and hope they can build a house someday. They invest in their homes, and they have a sense of legacy. It’s something to leave their kids and grandkids,” he said.
It was the deadliest tornado to hit the U.S. since May 2013, when an EF5 twister killed 24 people in Moore, Oklahoma.
Government teams surveying storm damage confirmed Tuesday that at least 18 tornadoes struck on Sunday in Alabama, Florida, Georgia and South Carolina.
Cindy Sanford said one of her neighbors in Beauregard died in the storm, and another neighbor remained missing Tuesday.
“I pray to God that they find her,” Sanford said as picked through remains of her home, which tumbled in the wind and is now scattered across neighbors’ land.
Sanford said she left home with her 5-year-old grandson about five minutes before the storm struck after she got a feeling it was unsafe.
“It was God,” she said. “And then I heard the siren.”
Associated Press writers Jeff Martin in Atlanta and Russ Bynum in Savannah, Georgia, contributed to this report.
This story has been corrected to show that the coroner now says the oldest victim was 89, not 93.