“They were doing what they were supposed to be doing,” the police chief said, noting that the house collapsed after a tree crashed through the building.
Several other people in the area are critically injured, and first responders are still searching for people buried in rubble, Fultondale Mayor Larry Holcomb said.
“We still have people trapped in their houses that we are trying to access at this time,” Holcomb told WBMA. “We just request people to stay out of the area to where we can clear the roads and make access to the houses where people are trapped.”
At least six people were taken to the hospital for critical injuries, Smith told reporters, with the most serious injuries resulting from house collapses.
The storm touched down at around 10:40 p.m. in Jefferson County near Interstate 65, and a tornado soon ripped through Fultondale, a city of more than 8,000 located eight miles north of Birmingham.
“Seek shelter immediately!” the National Weather Service Birmingham tweeted.
Holcomb told reporters that the tornado cut a path nearly a quarter-mile wide, severely damaging Fultondale High School and multiple businesses in a period of about 30 minutes. The Jefferson County Emergency Management Agency said storm damage ranged from Fultondale to Center Point, a stretch of about 10 miles, and debris is estimated to have carried to around 15,000 feet in the air. About 12,000 people were without power in the state early Tuesday, according to Alabama Power.
Fultondale residents shared images of the destruction, from shattered homes to overturned cars and downed trees. A Hampton Inn next to the interstate was mangled by the storm, which collapsed the hotel’s roof and left many rooms ripped open. Hotel guests said the rumble “sounded like a train coming,” and one man said he hoped he wouldn’t die when his window blew in.
At Darlene Estates, a subdivision in Fultondale, one man recounted rushing his wife and baby out of the family’s home 10 minutes before a giant wooden spike pierced through a bedroom wall and their bed, right next to a crib. Others shared images of piles of debris where their homes once stood.
“It’s not going to be a quick process,” Holcomb said of the recovery efforts.
Residents in surrounding communities, like 18-year-old Sam Moerbe of Gardendale, were astounded at the devastation, estimating to AL.com that 80 percent of the homes he saw in his old neighborhood had suffered roof damage.
“It looks like a bomb went off,” he said.
James Spann, the longtime meteorologist for WBMA in Birmingham, noted that while a tornado in January might seem odd, hundreds have happened in his decades covering the state.
“I can write a book alone just on January tornadoes in this state,” he said. “It’s tragic, but they do happen.”
In Center Point, Mayor Bobby Scott stood in the rain to tell WBMA how the roof at Hilldale Baptist Church had been destroyed, with its steeple lying in the middle of the road.
“It looks like we’ve got a lot of work ahead of us,” Scott said.