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April 27, 2011: Interview With a First Responder: "I was just glad I was there for the people."

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Cpl. Mark Weaver, Deputy with the Tuscaloosa County Sheriff's Office, recounts the harrowing events of the day.

Cpl. Mark Weaver surveying the devastation.
Cpl. Mark Weaver surveying the devastation.

As a 33-year veteran of the Tuscaloosa County Sheriff's Office, Cpl. Mark Weaver knows a thing or two about law enforcement. A long-time K-9 deputy, since 9/11 his duties have included game day security at Bryant-Denny Stadium where he would walk with the team during the Walk of Champions before allowing his bomb-sniffing dog to sweep the grounds and ensure that the 101,000+ people inside would remain safe.

He loves the game of football, volunteering as a coach at Hillcrest High where he counts current Tide LB Keith Holcombe among those he has had the opportunity to mentor. He also enjoys being around the Alabama players, lauding the discipline shown by the team and describing them as "like his children," getting to know their families and watching them grow as humble leaders under Nick Saban's tutelage. He recalls fondly former QB AJ McCarron ensuring that he got a cigar each year after beating Tennessee.

Like so many Tuscaloosa residents, however, Cpl. Weaver had no idea what lied in store for him on April 27, 2011, the day that an EF-4 tornado ripped through the heart of the city. By all accounts, the first responders put forth an exemplary effort that day, saving untold lives and providing comfort to so many others. Cpl. Weaver was among several who received awards for their efforts, his for reviving a baby who had stopped breathing.

To mark the fifth anniversary of the storm, we were fortunate to get to speak with him directly, to hear the story of that dreadful day through the eyes of a first responder. Needless to say, some of the material is graphic in nature, simply unavoidable in this scenario. Be forewarned, but read on. It's worth your time:

On the start of the day:

That day started at about 4:45. We had three that day that we actually had to move different parts of equipment, different deputies into the area. The first one started at about 5:00 (A.M) in the Coaling area when it actually hit the ground, tore up several, several homes. We didn't have very many injuries as far as serious injuries.  We had some with glass and all that stuff but we had to clear roads and get all that cleared up, then we staged again for another round which was going to go on the North end of the county which was up near Lake Tuscaloosa and that actually gave us more problems just due to the area. We got all that kind of squared away and got everybody to be self-sufficient, then staged for the one that was coming that afternoon.

Recalling the big one:

It actually stalled about 4pm in Greene County and met up with another one that was coming out of Sumter County, and that's when it hit the ground and went to running, about 5 o' clock here. And that night, it was like, it stayed on the ground, if I remember correctly, and this is just me reading stuff, this is not me keeping it on the ground. My job was to watch it, tell ‘em where it was located, which way it was headed, get deputies and other people involved in staying out of the area, and different things.

When I was at 15th and McFarland and it was tearing up Forest Lake, I decided that it was time for me to try and skirt it and go up 15th St. Well, no sooner than I got up 15th St. about Five Points, they said it was tearing up houses and there was possibly fatalities in the Holt Area, so I broke off the skirting and went towards the Holt Area and I was the first one into what we call Crescent Lane, that was the first part of Holt that it actually tore up. And that's when I encountered several bodies.

And that's where training takes over, and I say that you know, kind of weird. I mean, yes there's a body there, and me as a Deputy, that concerns but yet I still have injured people and I still have hurt people that are moaning and groaning, people needing rescuing out of houses that are trapped, stuff like that. So, you mark that in your mind where, we call them 1089s which are dead persons, we mark that in our minds or on a piece of paper that we've got, and we keep trudging into the area. And, I tell people this all the time that ask me about this, you know if you'd have told me it tore up Alberta City, if you'd have told me it tore up Rosedale, I'd have never known that until the next day because my little area was a mile and a half by three miles, that I walked looking for people and getting stuff done.

The first encounter I was with was Ms. Bayode, she was on Crescent Lane, and they made a thing on Tornado Alley (feature on The Weather Channel) that her husband said he knew she was gone, and seeing those kids crying and me having to walk off to go and look for somebody else. You know, when you think about things like that where they've just lost their mother, they've lost their wife, and here you are going, you're leaving them. When you do the triage, that's what you have to do. You have to make that particular note that you've got to go do something else, and you come back to it.

And I never will forget two houses down, guy had a broken leg, so we put him on a wooden board, which was a door, myself and a guy named Jeff Holloway took him back out to Crescent Ridge Rd. where somebody could get him to the hospital, and that's what you do. Just training takes over, and people don't believe that.

On saving the baby:

About halfway through on Crescent Lane is where the lady came up with the baby that wasn't breathing and, I'm a soft heart. I can't do without the little ones. Man, myself and a man by the name of Marcus Bell went into action. Marcus had a whole truck full of folks he was taking to the emergency room. I said, "Marcus leave me. I'm taking this baby to the hospital." The mother really, truly couldn't... I say she couldn't, she was just overwhelmed with emotion because her baby's not breathing, so we actually started breathing for the baby as we tried to drive through the debris. I tell folks this all the time, I still don't know, other than following Marcus Bell to the hospital and his patrol unit in front of mine, I don't know how I got there trying to drive and trying to breathe for that baby with her (mother) crying and carrying on.

Now when we got the baby back to the hospital it started coughing up some small amounts of blood, and it did cough up some stuff, but they got the baby to breathing and I went back to the impacted area.

The aftermath:

For almost fourteen days, we worked sixteen hour shifts until we found everybody that was missing in the Holt area, we had cleared every house in our area, as far as that goes. We even had cadaver dogs come in from the U.S. Customs. I was a part of going with them, making sure they had all their medical stuff that they needed for their dogs. There were seven of them. We had two come from El Paso, TX right by the Juarez border and three from Brownsville, TX. So, for four days we did nothing but run searches, looking for lost people. When we got everybody accounted for except for one person that they thought might have been somewhere else, the Sheriff released them and I got a day or two off...

We've always been a strong knit Sheriff's office, we've always been a strong knit city police department, Northport, the Fire Department. That just made us stronger because every time we went past one of us, it was, "Hey man, you need anything? Hey man, are you OK, Hey man, are you this? And I mean, hey, let me go get you some water." It just made us stronger as a law enforcement community and Fire Department community because we had to work those days so long.

On his award and being called a hero:

I got the Life Saving Award from the Sheriff's Office for doing compressions and CPR for the baby, and it survived.

If it had not been for the deployments that we went on during hurricanes and stuff like that, our Sheriff's Office would have been lost a lot of the time. We'd go into places like Pritchett where Hurricane Katrina went through, or Hurricane Ivan went through down in Gulf Shores or in Lee County or Escambia County or somewhere like that, we'd kind of supplement their little departments because they are small. But, we know how to do the grid searches. We know how to do the marks on the wall that says we've searched, and it was more or less we knew if that was my street that I was on right then, clear that street and get it done because then we'd have it all documented that we got it done. So, much of that, when you walk into this area, 95 percent of it is, you go straight to training.

On counseling and dealing with the things they saw:

We have bull sessions at the end of all the shifts that are on deployment teams, and we talk about stuff. "Hey man, are you OK? Do you want to talk about it?" And when you talk to the other people who are there on the ground with you, we call them ground pounders, you know that's just part of it. And I'm going to be honest with you, it's nothing that you can just shake off or not see, because you see it....

It's all about what we've learned during these deployments. How to talk to each other. "Hey man, go take a breather."

On how Tuscaloosa has changed since that day:

You've got your firemen, city police officers, troopers, paramedics, we all know each other a little better because we all worked together for a long period of time. And that makes us better, it makes us stronger. And it also makes the citizens of Tuscaloosa stronger.

People now are kind of leery of storms and stuff. They weren't leery to begin with, you know they wouldn't listen to a lot of things that we do. Now they pay attention to our sirens when we come out like we're supposed to in bad weather. And they pay attention to the warnings. So it made us stronger, but it also made us more experienced in doing different things.

My experience that day made me glad that I was in law enforcement because I could help the people that I could help. And I'll say this, I would have never changed my career, even though I went through that, April 27th. That was one of the longest, roughest days I've ever had, but yet I wouldn't have changed anything. I was just glad I was there for the people.

So often we take for granted those who put their lives on the line for us every day. As we look back on a horrific day, take the opportunity to thank a first responder. We never know when it will be us for which they are responding.