The Tuscaloosa tornado aftermath, viewed through an ambulance’s windshield

All day long, Quin Bailey had been waiting for the storm to hit, calling in ambulance crews to be at the ready in the downtown Tuscaloosa, Ala., emergency medical company where he serves as a dispatcher and driver.

It was busy work, so he hardly noticed the dark clouds bearing down until he glanced out the window sometime after 3 p.m. and saw debris flying everywhere.

“Usually tornadoes go north of the river or south of Skyland Boulevard, but this is the first time we’ve had one drive right through the center of the city,” the 26-year-old said.

After 30 minutes huddled in the safe haven of the bathroom, Bailey and a colleague headed out in one of NorthStar EMS’s ambulance vans — white with an orange stripe — in response to calls several miles away on Interstate 359.

A couple of miles of empty highway suddenly gave way to a scene of pure chaos. Cars were strewed everywhere — flipped onto their roofs, tossed in ditches, dropped up the hillside. Buildings looked like they had been sliced through by a can opener, their siding flung all over the four lanes of highway. A long length of uprooted chain-link fencing blocked two lanes like a coil of barbed wire.

A dazed UPS driver was one of the first people Bailey saw.

“He had gotten to an underpass just in time and got out of his vehicle,” Bailey said. “His truck was picked up and then dropped all the way on the other side of the interstate.”

Tornadoes are common enough in Tuscaloosa that people know what to do when the tornado siren sounds. Many of them had huddled beneath the underpass as the tornado roared by, and now they emerged, lucid, for the most part, but injured.

Packing three at a time into the ambulance, Bailey and his partner raced down the wrong side of the highway to evade the chain-link coil and began to make the first of several trips to DCH Regional Medical Center.

“The hospital was organized chaos,” he said. “There were beds in the hallways, nurses and doctors everywhere. We would just get the patient off the stretcher and onto a gurney, give a brief report, grab fresh linens and head out again.”

With the I-359 mayhem under control, Bailey’s ambulance roared off to the Alberta City neighborhood.

“It looked like a bomb went off,” Bailey said. “Normally when you go over the bridge, you see churches and businesses and people’s homes. There was nothing.”

Downed power lines formed deadly spider webs of wires, and debris everywhere made it slow going, so finally they simply turned into a parking lot and waited.

“The sounds of the siren and the flashing lights brought people to us,” he said. “There was elderly. There was young. They brought somebody up who they said a house had collapsed on him. The ones that were too badly injured to walk were carried up on pieces of wood or doors.”

The hospital was rapidly filling to the point of overflowing, and as night began to fall, they were told to head to nearby Holt, another hard-hit community.

On their way, they sped past Bailey’s house just behind the Midtown Village shopping center to find it sagging under the weight of two fallen trees.

“I just said, ‘Oh, man, there’s my house,’ ” he said.

The tornado’s fat footprint passed within a hundred yards of his doorstep, squashing everything in its path.

“I got off lucky, I guess,” he said.

By now, the streets were becoming clogged with cars. With phone lines and cellphone towers downed or out of commission, people rushed about to check on friends and property.

The sheriff had established a triage center in the gym at Holt Elementary School, where doctors dispatched the most seriously injured into Bailey’s ambulance.

Many suffered head injuries or broken bones, but all of the two dozen patients he carried to the hospital between late afternoon and midnight were conscious and, for the most part, lucid.

“I didn’t run into any of the dead or anyone who had lost somebody,” Bailey said. “We were prepared for this, but we’ve just never had one come right through the middle of the city before.”

Ashley Halsey reports on national and local transportation.
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