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Ala. Tornado Photo Shows Human Side

December 18, 2000

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. (AP) _ _ A week before Christmas, 6-year-old Whitney Crowder’s father and little brother are dead. Her younger sister and mother are hospitalized with serious injuries.

But Whitney, whose dramatic rescue from the wreckage of a tornado was pictured in newspapers around the country, is getting better.

``We talked with her and prayed with her. She had a hamburger,″ family friend Heather Wallace said Monday. ``She’s coming back.″

The blond-haired girl, who suffered cuts and a head injury, was among the victims of a series of tornadoes that rolled across Alabama on Saturday, killing 11 people in Tuscaloosa and one person 200 miles to the south in Geneva.

A Tuscaloosa News photograph of Whitney being carried out of the rubble by neighbor Mike Harris was printed in papers nationwide after being transmitted by The Associated Press.

``She was just moaning. I don’t think she was conscious,″ Harris told the newspaper. ``I just kept telling her, `Everything’s going to be all right, you’re going to be OK.‴

Whitney’s 15-month-old brother, Wesley, was the storm’s last victim. Searchers cried as they found his body beneath rubble 19 hours after the family’s mobile home was blasted by screaming winds.

The children’s father, James Derek Crowder, 26, was killed. Their 26-year-old mother, Theresa Crowder, was hospitalized in serious condition in Birmingham with spinal injuries. Gov. Don Siegelman visited her Monday.

The couple’s youngest daughter, 3-year-old Abby, was listed in critical condition at Children’s Hospital in Birmingham, where Whitney also is being treated.

The tragedy struck a family that Wallace described as being model.

The father ``was the youth minister of our church,″ said Wallace, whose husband is pastor at Unity Baptist Church. ``Theresa and I swap kids every week so we can get things done. She had three, and I have six.″

The family lived just three trailers down from Audrey Johnsen, who rode out the twister safely in her laundry room with her terminally ill husband, Ken.

``Our mobile home slid six feet this way and three feet that way,″ she said. ``The whole roof was gone except for the room we were in.″

Less than a half-mile away, at Bear Creek Trailer Park, six people died. One-third of the approximately 150 mobile homes were damaged or destroyed.

In all, officials with the Federal Emergency Management Agency estimated that about 570 homes and businesses were damaged in Tuscaloosa County and at least 65 were destroyed. Federal officials were also assessing widespread damage in Geneva, Etowah and Limestone counties.

Rep. Spencer Bachus, R-Ala., said a federal disaster declaration would be issued, providing money to help local agencies with the cleanup. Low-cost federal loans will also be provided to help victims rebuild.

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