The worst damage appeared concentrated in northwestern Calhoun County, which saw at least two tornadoes rip through, eyewitnesses said, though that likely won’t be known for certain until later today.
Authorities confirmed two deaths but indicated the toll is likely to rise as emergency workers sift through demolished homes.
At least six different agencies were on the scene as soon as the danger passed. Chainsaws and Caterpillar bulldozers were put to work by emergency responders and volunteers alike to clear downed trees off roads and give ambulances access the wounded.
Homes and churches were destroyed. Aluminum siding littered bent and disfigured trees, while downed power lines lay across roadways.
One of the confirmed fatalities was a man, whose identity was unknown to emergency crews, outside the Mamre Baptist Church, near the intersection of Old Anniston-Gadsden Highway and U.S. 431. A group of people had taken shelter in the basement of the church, said Bob Cross, assistant fire chief with the Gadsden Fire Department.
Two contractors who stopped on their way home to help clear trees on U.S. 431 were the first to arrive on the scene. John Stoddard, operations manager of A.J.’s Works, said he and a co-worker pulled over when they saw a mobile home tossed across the street.
They crossed the road and helped an elderly couple out of a damaged home near the mobile home’s lot, they said. The man had a broken arm and flesh from the woman’s arm was torn from her mid-forearm to her fingers, Stoddard said.
As they helped the elderly couple the two contractors heard a woman calling from a distance, they said.
“The lady was screaming for somebody to help,” Stoddard said. “So we took off across the field.”
She led them to Mamre Baptist Church. It was flattened and a man was dead in a debris pile. Late Wednesday night the man’s body was still there because emergency vehicles couldn’t reach the site, Assistant Chief Cross said.
"The roads are covered in trees all the way up; responders had to walk half a mile on foot just to get to the church," Cross said. He shook his head as he described the difficulty first responders had in their attempts to reach the flattened Church.
"They were climbing over trees there and power poles here, all broken off," the assistant chief said.
Rain battered the sides of Cross' SUV, parked on the debris-swept shoulder of U.S. 431 in Oak Grove. Cross sat, dry and tired, behind the wheel of the car. The last of the people who'd been in the church at the time of its demolition had been pulled from the rubble, and Cross said he had another nine hours of work before his shift ended at 7 a.m. Thursday.
But his thoughts were tightly wound around the scene he'd just responded to.
"It was wild, to say the least," he said. "But it was a good response. Like I said, the biggest problem was the debris ... getting to the scene."
Other responders who helped search for storm survivors and count the dead Wednesday evening and early Thursday morning echoed Cross' sentiments.
The second confirmed fatality occurred in the nearby community of Peek’s Hill, off Gilbert’s Ferry Road.
At least six agencies, departments and rescue crews from two counties were at the scene: among them were the Calhoun County Sheriff’s Office, Southside police and fire departments, Anniston EMS, Etowah County Sheriff’s office and the Big Oak Fire and Rescue Squad.
Their vehicles were clustered at points along the road for about 2 miles, the flashing lights the only illumination at the scenes of devastation.
Without power, rescue workers tromped through the woods, picked through debris and sawed through limbs, all in an effort to reach as many people as needed help. One of the volunteer workers, Austin Andrews, said he lives in one of the only homes left standing in the area.
He said he watched the storms that tore through his neighbor’s homes from the Big Oak Fire department. He, Daniel Lee and Jennifer Perunko all worked for the department throughout the day and into the night.
They said they saw things they wouldn’t talk about.
Clearing the roads was the number-one task for responders. All firefighters and paramedics interviewed Wednesday night and early Thursday morning shared stories of crawling through thick debris to reach damaged homes.
Four or five crews, each with an average of six workers, were out on Gilbert’s Ferry Road working to clear the main road and its offshoots, said Mike Bearden from his crew cab.
His crew, sweaty in their reflective vests, worked with chainsaws and heavy equipment alongside locals and volunteers, helping to clear a major part of the roadway enough for it to serve as passable.
Anniston police lieutenants Allen George and Tim Whatley spent four and a half hours helping to pull storm victims from rubble, locate lost family members and lend a hand to other first responders in northwest Calhoun County.
George said he and Whatley traveled between the destroyed homes and downed power lines on Gilbert's Ferry Road, the Mamre Baptist Church and other storm-blasted areas along Cochran's Spring Road in Ohatchee.
George wanted to volunteer his efforts, because he is friends with some of the congregation members at Mamre Baptist.
"A whole bunch of people in that community took shelter there at the church, and it was just destroyed," George said.
The sight of so many people injured and the understanding that the number of fatalities would continue to rise as the emergency response progressed sickened George.
"Just the destruction of the places we went through," George said. "I'm not used to seeing stuff like this."
Responding to these scenes of devastation was a daunting task, but one aspect among those was finding and identifying the dead.
Amid the wreckage along Gilbert’s Ferry Road, almost everyone was searching for something.
The flickers from flashlights danced like fireflies in the rubble of one home. Fresh from making one pronouncement, Calhoun County deputy Coroner Dudley Miller wouldn’t speculate on the number of people who had died, only calling it “multiple.”
And that was only the start of the trouble.
“It’s going to be difficult in the short term to put IDs with these people,” Miller said. “We’ll make some pronouncements, then we’ll work on identification.”
For now, they’ll be John and Jane Does taken away from the aftermath.
“When you look at the mass destruction that is out here, people are dislocated from each other,” Miller said. “They won’t really know who’s missing and who’s not and who may be at a neighbor’s house.”
Star staff writers Cameron Steele, Laura Johnson and sports editor Bran Strickland reporting.
Star staff writer Jason Bacaj: 256-235-3546