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At ground zero of Alabama's monster tornado, astonishing tales of survival

The massive tornado that cut through Tuscaloosa, Ala., also made it to this rural valley, crushing houses and tossing cars. Somehow, Cathy Studdard survived to tell the tale.

By Staff writer / April 28, 2011

Josh Humphrey, son of Cathy Studdard, looking at the place where she was found Wednesday after the same tornado that hit Tuscaloosa, Ala., struck the small town of Goshen.

Patrik Jonsson/The Christian Science Monitor

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Cherokee County, Ala.

As it became clear to David Studdard that the same massive tornado that tore through Tuscaloosa was taking aim at his northeast Alabama valley, he got into his truck with his dog to find safer ground. His wife, Cathy Studdard, vowed to follow him in her truck, with their other dog, D.J.

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"She said she was going to go," says her son, Josh Humphrey. "But she wasn't ever going to go."

Just as she did 17 years ago when the "Palm Sunday Tornado" touched down a few miles to the east, killing 20 people huddled in a church, Ms. Studdard chose to stare down a tornado rather than flee from it.

Hers is just one of the tales of close escapes, as well as of tragic loss, that are now are illuminating the harrowing hours in which Alabama, already tornado-prone, experienced its deadliest-ever tornado outbreak. President Obama has said he will come to Alabama Friday, calling the loss of life "heartbreaking."

Meteorologists say the storms across Arkansas were a historic event – a rotating thunderstorm called a super cell that spawned hundreds of tornadoes, including the mile-wide tornado that hit Tuscaloosa and continued northeast to this rural valley north of Piedmont. Initial estimates suggest wind speeds could have reached 260 miles an hour, making the tornado a class F5 storm – the highest on the tornado scale.

The sheer breadth and power of the tornado system that raked across Alabama meant many residents had no time to make any decision at all.

"For a lot of people, it was just hunker down and pray," says Don Oliver, who was driving in his truck Wednesday when he crested a hill and spotted the tornado, causing him to turn around and high-tail it.

The tornado, one of the biggest of dozens that crossed the state, killing at least 194 people, then leaped into this valley near the Georgia line, throwing a '57 Chevrolet 200 yards into a field, carrying a hilltop log cabin over a nearby ridge, and crushing Studdard's house along with several others, Mr. Oliver says.

Several horses grazing in the valley died, but Studdard and D.J. – a 15-year-old black lab mix – survived the direct encounter even as the family homestead was ripped apart. Tornado tailwinds carried her screams for help across a half-mile wide field to where a group of volunteer firefighters were searching for survivors.

"We knew Cathy was out in that old house, and 'Dre' [her grandson] said a little prayer for Nan," says Susan Pell, a family friend.

A rescuer found her pinned to the ground, a ceiling beam on top of her. "She remembers sitting down on the bed, hearing the freight train, and then leaping into her closet," her son says. "The last thing she remembered is being picked up. When she woke up, she thought she had been pulled outside, but actually the whole house was gone."

Studdard was airlifted to Atlanta to receive medical care and is doing well. Across the valley, another grandmother survived in much the same way. The house blew apart, leaving only the walls of the closet where she was huddling.

Neighbors found D.J. wandering along the road about a half-mile from his home. "He's a tough old dog," says Mr. Humphrey.

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