Rosedale tornado victims honored on 10th anniversary of storm
Christian McNeil should be more than a memory.
She should be an 11-year-old middle-schooler, navigating the joys and jubilation of childhood and coming of age in the 21st Century.
Instead, the toddler was honored on the 10th anniversary of her death with one of nine roses placed on a granite bench in the west Tuscaloosa housing community of Rosedale.
“She was so sweet,” said her grandmother, Georgia Smith. “I miss her very much.”
Christian A. McNeil, at the age of 1, was killed on April 27, 2011, alongside eight other Rosedale Court residents when an EF-4 tornado slammed into the residential complex on its 5.9-mile path across Tuscaloosa.
During a ceremony to unveil the granite bench bearing the name of the nine who died in Rosedale Court that day, a red rose was given to all relatives who were in attendance. Then, as the ceremony was brought to a close, roses were placed on the bench in remembrance of the loved one lost.
Jaslyne Smith is Christian’s aunt who, at the age of 17, tried to save the toddler from the storm. But it arrived too fast and, in the chaos and confusion, Christian ran away, believing it all a game.
“She was running and playing, thinking that everybody was playing,” said Jaslyne Smith, now 27. “She was just running, laughing.”
Then Christian got swallowed in the collapse of the front door, Jaslyne Smith said.
The ceiling over her soon followed.
“The only thing I remember is I tried to run to grab her and the door came down on her,” Jaslyne Smith said, “and when I turned around everything just blacked out.”
Jaslyne Smith accepted the rose in her niece’s honor when the child’s name was read aloud by Jeannette Barnes, who also lived through being buried in the wreckage of Rosedale Court and, later, went on to serve on the Tuscaloosa Housing Authority’s Board of Commissioners.
Barnes read the name of each Rosedale Court victim in dedicating the bench that now sits in the courtyard outside Rosedale’s admission’s office.
Sheena Nicole Hutchins.
Lee Andrew Lee.
Justin Le’Eric Thomas.
Before the dedication, a host of guests, elected officials and Housing Authority officials spoke in solemn remembrance and honor of the occasion.
“Y’all are not friends. You are my family,” said Doug Wedgeworth, a Rosedale resident who helped dig several of his neighbors out of the rubble in 2011. “Some of you I never met before, but you came when we were on our knees and helped put us back on our feet.”
One of those neighbors he helped rescue was Barnes, who he heard crying out from the rubble of her apartment.
Wedgeworth recalled finding Barnes, a woman he called a “great friend,” and how she asked him to find her glasses so she could see.
“That was one of the most heart-wrenching things that I had to hear from someone, even as I lost things,” Wedgeworth said.
But now, 10 years removed from the disaster, Wedgeworth said he didn’t want anyone to consider him, his neighbors or his friends, as victims.
“I just want everybody to know,” Wedgeworth said, “that we all are survivors here.”
Firefighter recalls historic tornado outbreak:'I had a long conversation with God in that moment'
Joseph Brown, area manager for Alabama Power Co., recounted how the power company was devastated by the April 27, 2011, storms. The tornadoes that crossed Alabama that day took out 75% of Alabama Power’s electrical system across the state, including 5,000 poles and 4.5 million feet of power lines that “just disappeared,” Brown said.
But Brown said he remembered most the aid he took from Willie J. “Dino” Fort, the longtime assistant executive director of the Tuscaloosa Housing Authority, who asked for “someone to be with us long-term,” Brown said.
“So, we locked arms with Dino that night,” Brown said.
He then announced the creation of Alabama Power-funded memorial scholarship fund, in remembrance of the Rosedale dead, that will aid the educational aspirations of city school students who now call Rosedale home.
The details are still being worked out as, Brown said, the idea for the educational fund came to him moments before he announced it. But he said it’s meant to carry on that commitment he made to Fort in the hours of the most devastating storm in Tuscaloosa’s known history.
“Today is a day we’re reminded how quickly things can change,” said Lin Moore, chair of the Tuscaloosa Housing Authority’s Board of Commissioners. “Ten years ago, our city and Rosedale – this community in particular, where we are today, standing on this ground – changed forever.
“And certainly as long as we’ll be here to remember it, hopefully, those who come down the line, will remember it, also.”
Reach Jason Morton at firstname.lastname@example.org.