SMITHS STATON, Ala. (WRBL) – March 3, 2019 is a date seared in the memories of folks in East Alabama. Three years ago, the first tornado watch came at 11:03 am, and by 2:03 that afternoon, the storm came sweeping through. A deadly EF-4 tornado tore through Smiths Station, before slamming into Beauregard, where 23 people were killed and nearly 100 others were injured.
“Seconds count with a tornado, so yeah, for a minute, that’s really long.”Rita Smith – Emergency Management Director for Lee County
The sky was filled with gray that Sunday as a warm humidity filled the air. As alerts came in folks knew a storm was coming but what they didn’t know, was the damage it would cause.
“I put my family in the basement of my house and looked out the back door of my basement and I saw it go about 150 yards from my house. And then I knew it was bad because of the debris field. And then I didn’t realize how bad it was.”FL Bubba Copeland – Smiths Station Mayor
By the time debris had settled, first responders were immediately chasing daylight.
“That was the scary part is we knew there were still some people missing, we knew there were still some things that need to get done, but there’s only so many hours in the day. So just having to fight that and then knowing that it’s coming back the next morning, right back into it, you know, I don’t think anybody slept at night.”Michael Holden – Captain and Safety Officer for Beauregard Fire Department on 3-3-19
Over 40 different tornadoes touched down that day across the south… After the storm, first responders from across Alabama and Georgia showed up for one another.
“I had to go out to Beauregard at like 10 or 11:00 that night to help the coroner and to get down there all you saw was red and blue lights. I mean, it was miles and miles of red and blue lights.”Rita Smith – Emergency Management Director for Lee County
Living through the devastation left distinct memories for some residents. but others are still processing the trauma.
“I don’t even know if I remember it was so numbing to see such devastation in a little community like ours … But seeing it firsthand in your own community is very numbing. You don’t really know how to feel.”Michael Holden – Captain and Safety Officer for Beauregard Fire Department on 3-3-19
“To see our first responders at home, people you know and care about covered in mud, dirt, blood, ya know emotional.”Rita Smith – Emergency Management Director for Lee County
The sun rose again, and as Smiths Station Mayor Bubba Copeland reflected on the destroyed town, he remembered the unity that came with it.
“There wasn’t a handbook on what to do and we didn’t know what to do, and we just knew that we needed help and continue working. And I want to say the calvary came.”FL Bubba Copeland – Smiths Station Mayor
He says people from all walks of life put aside their differences and showed up for one another. In Smiths Station, this beam stands where a family’s home used to be, a constant reminder.
“Homes can be replaced, but you know, the memories of their photographs and their Christmas ornaments, all that stuff are gone. That’s not replaceable.”Rita Smith – Emergency Management Director for Lee County
A permanent memorial for the 23 lives lost stands at Providence Baptist Church in nearby Beauregard. Their names and faces are etched into the main layer of the stone monument. The layer above it is forever dedicated to the first responders who saved lives that day, and rising from the middle, a cross reading “Beauregard Strong,” signifying the unity the community felt during and after the storm .
On the 3 year anniversary, the Lee County community gathered at the church, candles in hand to honor and remember those who lost their lives