The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Youngest tornado victim hid in closet amid 170-mph winds

AJ Hernandez, 6, was with his father and brother before the “the house exploded,” his grandfather said.

Jessica Taylor on Wednesday prays in front of a cross for Jonathan Bowen, 9, at a makeshift memorial for the victims of a tornado in Beauregard, Ala. "I have a son his age," Taylor said. "I can't imagine that mother's loss." (David Goldman/AP)
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BEAUREGARD, Ala. — The man in the baseball cap stood at the edge of the road and gazed out across the devastation, unseeing.

“I’m Bobby Kidd,” he said. He could barely choke out the words. “AJ was my grandson."

AJ. He was such a sweet-faced kid. Rambunctious — like many little boys are — with an infectious smile. He loved basketball and chicken nuggets and playing with blocks.

“He was just full of life,” Kidd said. He was crying now. He lifted his hat and wiped his face. “And he left too early.”

AJ Hernandez, 6, was the youngest of 23 people killed when tornadoes slammed into this rural Alabama community on Sunday. The first-grader sought shelter in a closet with his father, Steven Griffin, and his 10-year-old brother Jordan.

Steven had clutched the little boys close. But when the twister roared down the street with its 170-mph winds, “the house exploded,” Kidd said.

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“Steven came to himself, and he was in that pile,” Kidd said as he looked at the spot where the building had been. Now there was only mutilated pines and crumpled siding and the scattered detritus of so many fractured lives: a zebra-striped cushion, a wicker chair, a Christmas stocking, a hula hoop, a single white high-heeled shoe.

The boys’ father discovered his elder son at the bottom of the hill behind the house, badly injured.

AJ’s body wasn’t found until later that day.

Steven and Jordan were picked up and brought to an ambulance by friends driving a Jeep through the destroyed neighborhood. They both spent two days at hospitals in Birmingham being treated for fractured ribs, a fractured skull and a broken arm.

On Wednesday evening, several family members returned to the spot where the house had been for the first time. It was quiet; most of the other families who’d spent the day digging through rubble for old photographs and lost heirlooms had gone home.

A few of the emergency responders and volunteers who drove through recognized the family. They leaned out their car windows to clasp hands, or strode over to envelop Kidd in a hug.

“I’m here for you, brother,” one woman said as she held him.

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“This community,” Kidd said, afterward. AJ’s family had received donations of supplies, food and funds for the funeral. Phone calls came in from all over — people asking how they could help.

Kidd thought about his last moments with AJ. The songs he’d sung at the school concert on Friday — there was something about snow, with hand motions to go along. The way the little boy made Kidd laugh, calling him “Pawpaw” in his funny, deep voice.

Kidd turned away from the shattered house and walked back up the road. He had no more words.