Amid ruins and preparations for funerals, congregations in the western outskirts of Birmingham, Ala., assembled outdoors or in damaged church buildings Easter Sunday morning to sing, pray, and listen to sermons of hope and resurrection. Members wept, hugged, and comforted one another. Some were bandaged and bruised; some had lost loved ones. Gatherings included firsthand accounts from those who miraculously survived the worst tornado to strike Alabama in more than a decade.
The pre-Easter storm killed 33 and injured hundreds in Jefferson and St. Clair counties. It destroyed 1,000 houses and damaged another 1,000. A dozen churches were destroyed or badly damaged. The tornado struck on a Wednesday night, when some of the churches were holding prayer meetings and sponsoring other activities.
At a packed Easter service at the Rock Creek Church of God, Henry Staggs-whose parsonage suffered major damage-gave thanks for the 24 children and their care workers who came through the storm without a scratch. They had taken shelter in a women's restroom of the church's family life center and gymnasium next door. The weekly storm drills at the day-care center had called for the children to huddle in the main hallway; the switch to the restroom came at the last minute. It was the only portion of the building left standing. Six Rock Creek members were killed in their homes; others were injured.
At Chapel Hill Baptist Church, First Baptist Church-Gary in Ensley, Earnest Chapel Cumberland Presbyterian Church, and elsewhere, Easter services were held on debris-strewn lawns or parking lots because the buildings were gone.
At 30-member Edgewater Baptist Church, all that remained was a concrete slab and steps leading to it. The pews were buried under beams and other debris. Workers removed the rubble from the pews, and more than 60 people, old and young, climbed the steps and slipped into the pews under the sunny morning sky. They sang "The Old Rugged Cross." Many walked to the altar, part of it a makeshift cross of two-by-fours, fell to their knees, and prayed. As chain-saws hummed away in the surrounding neighborhood, Pastor Michael Lansford Sr. thanked the Lord for deliverance, praying: "We are here today to humble ourselves before you. We can see the miracle of your hand."
Reporters and camera crews were on hand for an Easter sunrise service held next to the ruins of 200-member Open Door Church. Sixty-nine people inside the church Wednesday night, including some teenagers and children, crouched in a rear hallway. They prayed and sang "Our God is an Awesome God" as the roaring winds approached. The twister sucked off the roof and sent glass flying around them. Overhead beams, the church doors, and a large oak table were flung into the hallway. When it was over, many of those inside were cut or bruised, but no one had been killed. The hallway was the only part of the building left standing.
At the sunrise service, Pastor Rick Cooper summoned survivors to the front. "I want people all over this country to see what a miracle looks like," he said. One of them, Teresa Minor, 41, said two of her three children were by her side when she heard a huge "sucking" sound and the roof was ripped away. The lights went out, debris blasted into the hallway, and a heavy door landed on her leg, leaving her on crutches with severe bruises. "It was a miracle because no one was sucked out" of the church, she said. "It was as if God had his hand capping us to protect us."
Those in the church had been alerted to the approaching twister by Tammy Jones, wife of associate pastor Greg Jones. She was recovering from back surgery; her husband and twin 12-year-old daughters had to leave her at home. Alerted by TV news, she called her husband on his cellular phone during the service and urged everyone to seek shelter immediately. She stayed on the phone and could hear those in the hallway praying and singing as the storm bore down on them. Pastor Jones and another member looked out the front door. The storm, with winds in excess of 260 mph, was upon them. "It's here!" he shouted. He rushed into the hallway and covered his daughters. He suffered a concussion when something smashed into his head.
"God spared our lives," Pastor Cooper told reporters afterward. "This woke us up. Material things aren't important. People are important."
Julie Currie of Tuscaloosa was visiting the church when the storm hit. "As Christians, every day we celebrate Jesus being alive," she told those at the sunrise service. "But today we're celebrating us being alive."