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ROSALIE, Ala. — An overnight tornado struck Northeast Alabama, killing three people and turning the mobile home they were in into a pile of rubble along the side of Alabama Highway 71 on Wednesday morning.
Emergency Management Agency officials tallied 88 structures destroyed in DeKalb County and 20 destroyed in Jackson County. At least a dozen people were injured.
In Rosalie, Chris Summerford appeared shell-shocked in the wake of storms that claimed the lives of his family members and injured others, one of them a 4-year-old boy. Summerford stood in a downpour in the parking lot of the Rosalie Plaza Grocery in Jackson County, Ala., where he was helping clean up debris and looking for anything they could save for the owner.
The store, like Summerford's cousins' home, was razed by the twister.
Summerford lives nearby and said his girlfriend woke him up when she got a weather alert on her cellphone. She headed for the tornado shelter north of their home but was cut off by the storm as it hit town.
When she returned to their home, Summerford said, the storm was already gone.
"We came up here, but by then it was all said and done," he said sadly.
The victims ranged in age from 20 to 26, he said. Another woman and a 4-year-old boy were also in the mobile home during the storm, but survived, Summerford said.
The woman had serious injuries, he said. The boy suffered a fractured arm.
"That little boy had a nail stuck in his back, but he'll be OK," he said. "He's tough. He's tougher than me."
Officials had not released the identity of the victims as of press time Wednesday.
The storms continued tearing northeast, crossing the DeKalb County line and slamming into the small town of Ider.
On the north end of Ider, Carter Hughes and his wife, Celeste, raise and train retrievers for American Kennel Club competitions at their home on County Road 159.
"I was trying to sleep. It was about 11 or 12 o'clock," Carter Hughes recalled. "I was upstairs in bed and Celeste said, 'You need to come down here. There's a tornado coming.'"
The tornado warning siren went off, and within five minutes, "I opened the back door and closed it and went into the bathroom and boom, there it was," said Hughes, who was soaked to the skin and shivering in the November winds that still whipped the mountaintop community early Wednesday.
The top floor of the Hughes' home appeared turned inside out, the upstairs wall flipped outward and upside down with framed pictures and decor still hanging from the interior side of the wall.
The couple sheltered in a bathroom in the center of the house and had to dig their way out to escape the nearly collapsed structure. But neither of them had any injuries, Carter Hughes said, and none of the 16 retrievers were injured — Hughes had moved them from their outdoor kennels to shelter before the storm struck.
Carter Hughes joked that in the wake of the damage he figured he'd "just punt," but then he said, "We'll just take it from one minute to the next."
A few miles to the east, Julie Crow talked to American Red Cross workers and sifted through the remains of the home she shared with her brother, Shane Allison, on County Road 803, between Ider and Cartersville, Ala.
Crow's adult daughter, Amanda McElrath, was asleep in a bedroom at the home.
Crow works the night shift at a Bridgeport, Ala., medical facility and had no idea the storms had hit her home until her oldest daughter called and said, "Mom, I got Uncle Shane out."
"I said, 'What are you talking about?' and she said, 'Our house is gone. It's not there anymore. It's gone. The storm got it.'" Crow said.
A shattered Crow headed home immediately, following ambulances and patrol cars into her neighborhood, where she found her daughter and brother.
"My daughter said she woke up from him calling for help. She said it was pitch black dark and she doesn't know how she got to him or what had covered him, but she uncovered him and pulled him out and they got in a vehicle and went up to my aunt's," Crow said.
Crow found her brother bleeding from the head, wet and shivering from the cold. Her brother ended up with two spinal fractures, torn tendons in his left arm, 10 staples in his head and 11 staples in his leg, and some other sutures on his legs.
"He said he had gotten up and he heard something and started toward the front door. And heard 'the train,' you know, and he tried to turn around. He remembered the front door blowing in on him," she said.
As she talked, other family members rummaged through the pulverized home for clothes and significant items.
One family member waved to Crow with a triangular shape in his hand, the military flag that draped her grandfather's casket.
Davis P.H. Weldon had served in the Korean War, she said, as another family member walked past with a baby portrait of himself he found in the debris.
As she took the flag, emotion welled up in her eyes, but she quickly focused on the task at hand and was fast back at work.
Folks in the rural community are no strangers to tornadoes or hardship, and fighting back comes naturally. The communities on Sand Mountain have endured tornadoes for decades.
Jackson County EMA director Mike Ashburn said late Wednesday a total of 66 structures were damaged or destroyed, including two churches, a fellowship hall and numerous homes and businesses in the relatively short distance between Rosalie and the DeKalb County line.
DeKalb County EMA director Anthony Clifton said the storm destroyed 34 structures as it entered and plowed across his county, including a church, 11 homes, nine mobile homes, 20 barns and sheds and 14 poultry houses. Many other structures were damaged and are still being accounted for, he said.
Contact staff writer Ben Benton at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6569.