Danielle and Reginald Eppes were in a race against the storm to save their children.
A window had already been blown out at their home and the couple had only a flashlight to see as they coaxed their three boys to wake up and get moving. It was around 5:20 a.m. April 27, 2011, and a tornado was making its way through the Coaling area.
Danielle had the youngest, age 4. Reginald was working on getting the other two, ages 6 and 8, from their bunk bed. The oldest child had climbed onto Reginald’s shoulders and he was about to grab him when the wind became too much for their shotgun-style home.
“I remember seeing the walls go and there went my 8-year-old at the same time,” Reginald said as he recalled the morning of April 27, 2011. “I had a long conversation with God in that moment.”
The morning storm that struck Coaling was the first wave in a historic outbreak of tornadoes, with 62 confirmed twisters touching down in Alabama that day. Later that afternoon, another tornado tore a 5.9-mile path across Tuscaloosa, damaging or destroying more than 12 percent of the city along the way with 53 deaths attributed to the storm.
Reginald Eppes experienced both waves of the destruction.
Reginald, a Northport firefighter, was getting ready for his second job at Mercedes-Benz U.S. International in Vance when the morning storm came through. Danielle was up early to read her Bible and pray, like a typical morning, but the wind was incredibly loud. The family didn’t have a weather radio, but they knew bad weather was in the forecast.
After Danielle had grabbed the youngest, she headed toward the bathroom, their safe place, but didn’t make it in time. She dropped to her knees and wrapped herself around the boy using her body to shield him as their home disintegrated.
“When it was all over, for a moment I thought the Lord had moved us because we were outside. Our house was completely destroyed,” Danielle said.
She was praying out loud when she learned that the oldest boy was swept away. She prayed louder and called out for him, Danielle said, and although it was still dark outside, she could see his silhouette walking back to them.
The 8-year-old was wearing only pajama bottoms. Barefoot, he walked over broken glass, insulation and other debris to return to his parents. He suffered some scratches on his shoulder blade and two knots on the back of his head but was otherwise OK.
Danielle held the youngest child so tight that he was free from injury, Reginald said. The middle child had a scratch on his foot.
Reginald, however, had broken ribs and deflated lungs, he said, and went to DCH Regional Medical Center that morning, where physicians inserted a chest tube. Once the two injured boys were determined to be OK, Danielle and the children went to her sister’s house in the Alberta area.
Reginald was in a hospital room overlooking 15th Street later that evening when the EF-4 tornado devastated Tuscaloosa.
Meanwhile, in the eastern part of the city, firefighters at Station 4 in Alberta prepared for the storm.
Car alarms and cries for help
Firefighter Paramedic Miles Dutton sought shelter with Battalion Chief Jeff Roberts (then a captain) and two other Tuscaloosa Fire Rescue firefighters in a central bathroom at Station 4 in Alberta when the tornado passed over them. They wore their fire helmets and were hunkered underneath a twin mattress that Dutton brought in from one of the beds.
It was Dutton’s first shift back after having been off for two weeks and at home in Birmingham with his wife and newly born daughter.
As the wind began to pick up, they could hear objects hitting the station.
“I was terrified. It was probably the scaredest I have ever been in my life,” Roberts said. “Cause you could hear the station just being destroyed around us and the things going on outside and it was really loud.”
The air pressure changes could be felt in their ears and bodies. Dutton said the air pressure changes made his ears pop.
The scene they would find inside the remainder of the fire station, Dutton described as if “a blender had gone off inside of it.” Stuff that previously at the front of the station was then located at the back. The building’s windows were broken and the garage door was blown onto the fire truck.
The back wall of the station was almost gone, exposing the destruction in the community and the quiet. At first, there were no dogs barking and no sounds of birds. The tornado’s immediate after-silence was cut with squealing car alarms and the gradual screams from people and cries for help.
The firefighters then went to gather what equipment and medical supplies they could carry before walking the streets of Alberta to help who they could. They worked until about 3 or 4 a.m. the following morning checking on residents, rescues, medical assistance and locating casualties before they returned to the fire station.
Roberts said members of the Alberta community “attached” themselves to the firefighters, offering them assistance in their efforts. He recalled that one man drove a pickup truck on flat tires to deliver a person with a collapsed lung to the hospital.
But while those rescue efforts went on, more reports of victims continued to come in, Tuscaloosa Police Capt. Kip Hart said. First responders and officials worked to set up triage points and collection points so they could begin accounting for anyone who had died.
‘We’re just really thankful’
Roughly 12 hours after having had a tornado experience, the Eppes family experienced another.
Reginald was rolled out of his hospital room and into the hallway when the EF-4 tornado passed through Tuscaloosa that evening. Danielle and the kids hid in closets and bathrooms at her sister’s home with other relatives.
It wasn’t long after that Reginald heard that Alberta Elemtentary School had been destroyed. Realizing the school was located in the area where his family was, he was unsure of their safety until around 9 p.m. that night when he was able to speak with Danielle. The only damage sustained at her sister’s home was a blown-down fence and a bent garage door.
The Eppes family was able to rebuild their house in a matter of months and move into their new home in early October 2011. Inside the foyer is a photograph of their old home damaged by the storm. Their new house also has a storm shelter, located centrally inside the home.
“We’re just really thankful. I don’t know why our lives were spared, you know, because there were some people who were not as fortunate. And material possessions, we rebuilt our home, in fact, we built a better home,” Danielle said.
“I’m always cognizant that I could have lost my son, I could have lost my husband and I’m just really thankful that for whatever reason our lives were spared. That’s how we go through life; we rely on God and we’re just thankful for every moment he gives us, really,” she said.
Fire Station 4 was too heavily damaged for repair. It was demolished and a temporary home for Station 4 was set up at Jaycee Park, using modular office buildings and a tent for the rescue vehicles.
A new building for Station 4 was erected on 25th Street near University Boulevard. After a number of years at the temporary location, firefighters were able to move into the newly built facility.
The old Station 4 had been around the ’50s and was built “like a bomb shelter,” Roberts said, adding that it was a good thing for the firefighters on that day.
“If we had been in any other fire station, I don’t think our outcome would not have been near as good,” Dutton said. “We might would have survived if we were in an inner hallway or something, but I think us being…