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Wrecked cars and destroyed homes on Andrews Street across from Enterprise High School on Friday. Eight students died when a tornado struck the high school Thursday.
AP photo by Mike Kittrell
Wrecked cars and destroyed homes on Andrews Street across from Enterprise High School on Friday. Eight students died when a tornado struck the high school Thursday.

Anguish at Enterprise
Warnings came hours before
twister killed 8 students

By Jay Reeves
Associated Press Writer

ENTERPRISE — Administrators at a high school where eight students died in a tornado were warned about severe weather nearly three hours before the twister struck, raising questions Friday about whether classes should have been dismissed earlier.

Residents of the neighborhood surrounding Enterprise High School said they heard warning sirens long before the tornado slammed into the brick building, collapsing a wall and crushing the victims in an avalanche of concrete and metal.

"It came real fast, but they had plenty of time to get those kids out because sirens were going off all morning," said Pearl Green, whose 15-year-old niece attends the school and was hit in the head by a flying brick.

Riley defends actions

But school officials said they had no chance to evacuate earlier because of waves of bad weather moving across the southeastern corner of the state. Gov. Bob Riley defended administrators' actions after a tour of the school, saying sometimes the worst happens.

"I don't know of anything they didn't do," Riley said after stepping out of the collapsed hall where the students died. "If I had been there, I hope I would have done as well as they did."

The students were among 10 people killed in Alabama on Thursday by severe weather, with a death toll that reached at least 20 across the Midwest and Southeast.

President Bush plans to visit two locations struck by the storm Saturday, according to the White House, but his destinations were still being worked out with governors in the affected states.

Trucks brought in by relief agencies already surround the school, which will likely be demolished.

Her left eye blackened after being hurt in the twister, school system employee Mary Cannon was overwhelmed by the response.

"It's just wonderful, the support," said Cannon, choking back tears and wearing an Enterprise football shirt.

10:30 a.m. sirens

Warning sirens began blaring in Enterprise about 10:30 a.m. Thursday, prompting school officials to usher the high school's 1,200 students into interior halls — supposedly the safest part of the building.

A "significant number" of students checked out after the initial warnings, and administrators decided to dismiss classes at 1 p.m., before the worst of the weather was forecast to hit, said Bob Phares, an assistant superintendent.

But with hundreds of students still huddled inside the school, emergency management officials warned that a possible twister was on the way and advised officials to hold students until 1:30 p.m., Phares said.

"The storm hit about 1:15," he said. A wall in one hall collapsed, and the concrete slab roof fell on students, killing them.

Phares said the dead were uniformly well liked.

"Each one who was brought out, somebody would say, 'That was a good kid,' " said Phares.

The last body, a boy, was removed about 12 hours after the tornado, he said.

Brittany Ammons, 18, left school about 10 minutes before the tornado hit. She said students in the halls could hear the sirens, but no one was panicked.

"We weren't really worried because we're always hearing sirens for bad weather," said Ammons.

More than 50 people were injured in Enterprise and Mayor Kenneth Boswell said about 370 homes were damaged or destroyed throughout the town of 22,000 people.

Looking at the remains of their school, Ammons and three of her classmates questioned whether students should have been sent home after the first warnings were issued. But senior Charles Strickland said the carnage would have been far worse if students were trying to leave school during the storm.

"If they'd let us out, they'd be looking at 50-300 dead," said Strickland.

As he spoke, Strickland pointed to a school parking lot full of students' vehicles that were thrown around by the twister, with some coming to rest against the building.

"Imagine those kids in the parking lot sitting in those cars," said English teacher Beverly Thompson.

Mitch Edwards, spokesman for the Alabama Board of Education, said the state has a comprehensive plan requiring schools to conduct weather drills and reviews schools' safety plans. But he said the decision on when to close schools is left to superintendents and principals.

"It's a situation where local superintendents and principals are in position to make the best call," Edwards said. "They try to react based on the best information available."

Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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