From the half-closed steel mill here on the rain-swollen banks of the Coosa River to the idle docks of Mobile Bay, Alabama is digging a deep grave for the myth of the recession-proof South.

In Birmingham, only caretakers work at U.S. Steel's mammoth mill, which employed 25,000 in its boom years. Auto parts makers and tire plants across the state have fallen victim to the same high interest rates and cheap foreign imports that plague Detroit.

Chemical plants, plastics and other heavy industries have been hurt. Textiles are suffering. Forestry workers who once felled pines for the home construction industry draw unemployment benefits.

Such layoffs have brought 15 percent unemployment on a not seasonally adjusted basis to Alabama, putting it first in the state-by-state unemployment figures for October released last week, the latest comparative figures available. Further eroding the booming Sun Belt mythology, Alabama edged out Michigan on this basis.

But the epicenter of the unemployment earthquake is in Gadsden, a forlorn, two-company town of 48,000 where Goodyear Tire and Republic Steel layoffs spelled a jobless rate of 21.5 percent, the worst area in the hardest-hit state.

"We're in a depression in Alabama," said Barney Weeks, president of Alabama's Labor Council.

Nor has the region as a whole been immune. Only three Deep South states have unemployment rates under 10 percent: Georgia, Florida and North Carolina. Why Alabama hit the top of the charts has sent economists scrambling for answers.

Donald Ratajczak, director of the Georgia State University forecasting project, compares Alabama's heavy-industry-based economy to that of hard-hit northern industrial states. Despite its folksy image, Alabama boasts the same heavy material, capital-intensive industries as America's heartland: plastics, chemicals, rubber, steel.

"Alabama is the Midwest of the South," he says. "In fact, its industry is more like the rest of the country than the South. And those industries aren't recession-proof, but recession-prone. They're getting killed. Alabama just made a mistake by becoming too reliant on heavy manufacturing."

After the Civil War, rich deposits of coal, iron ore and limestone lured northern steel barons to Birmingham, Gadsden and Sheffield. To exploit southern markets, metal fabricators followed. Until unions arrived, there was plenty of cheap labor for mines and mills: convicts leased from the state, poor white sharecroppers.

But Alabama was locked on a collision course with the future. High-technology firms found labor in other southern states cheaper than Alabama, said Ratajczak. Officials didn't push to diversify until it was too late.

Meanwhile, factories became obsolete, and Honda vehicles and Hong Kong shirts cut into markets. Cheap electricity that once drew aluminum plants to north Alabama got expensive. Alcoa recently shut its plant in Mobile. Reynolds Aluminum has laid off in Sheffield.

"Other Sun Belt states are better off because they don't have steel, rubber and auto-related industries," said Higdon Roberts Jr., director of the Center for Labor Education Research at the University of Alabama. "But high-tech industries won't bail us out tomorrow because we're too far down. Even if the economy turns around, companies won't employ as many because technological changes have to be made. Alabama needs an overhaul."

To make matters worse, depressed commodity prices cut jobs in the rural outback where even the "Farmer of the Year" recently threw in the towel. "Michigan just doesn't have as large a farm economy as Alabama, even though both states suffered from the auto recession," said University of Alabama research economist David Cheng.

Alabama is 26 percent black, and blacks are plagued with higher jobless rates than whites. "Georgia has a large black population, too," said Cheng, "but it doesn't depend on primary metals like Alabama. It has more service industries, insurance, finance."

Like Michigan, "tremendous structural unemployment" plagues Alabama, said Roberts. "What's the chance of retraining a 50-year-old steelworker to be a computer operator? Not much."

Alabama's educational system, ill-equipped to teach the high-tech arts, has been faulted by entrepreneurs hunting skilled workers. "If I had access to highly educated people, we could grow faster than we have," said Gene Sapp, president of a Huntsville electronics firm.

Yet areas like Huntsville, which lured high-tech firms to service the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the military, and Dothan, which boasts Sony, have bucked the trend.

While Alabama touts low taxes, it has lost some firms -- and jobs -- to states that plugged services that higher taxes provided, said Ratajczak. Others cite a divisive racial history for its failure to lure more diverse industry.

But statistics mask the human toll in places like Gadsden, where hundreds of steelworkers have exhausted $90-a-week unemployment benefits, among the lowest in the nation. Many survive off food stamps and friends. Cars and homes purchased during prosperity have been repossessed.

"I've had grown men wet this floor with tears, begging for a job," said Charlie Tarrance, director of People That Love Center, a private social agency. "We have to pray with some to keep them from killing themselves. So many say they just want to die."

Deer in the freezer from last year's hunt kept meat on the table this fall for steelworker Phil Barrett, 30, his wife and two children. But there won't be any more "deerburgers" because he can't afford shotgun shells after being laid off from an $11-an-hour job at Republic Steel in August.

"It feels real bad to get a handout," he said. "I never had to ask for a thing in my life until now. I've always had a job."

Like stricken Midwest towns, Gadsden reports an upswing in suicides, child abuse, divorce and burglaries. Alabama Power plans a $1 checkoff on customers' bills to fuel an emergency fund to help needy pay for utilities. Some doctors and merchants offer 10 percent discounts to the unemployed.

Mayor Steve Means projects service cuts unless locals back an unpopular sales tax proposal to offset funds lost from wage taxes that brought in more than half of Gadsden's $12 million budget revenue in better times. "But how can you tax the unemployed?" he asked.

Has he learned a lesson? Would he reject heavy industries to avoid future economic whiplash? "You can't be choosy when you're desperate," said Means. "If GM wanted to build a 4,000-employe plant in Gadsden, I'd take it in a minute."