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Spring 2001

Tornado aftermath
Mike Harris carries an unconscious Whitney Crowder, 6, from the rubble near her home after an F4 tornado swept through Tuscaloosa Saturday, Dec. 16, 2000.
A small light shines in the face of tragedy
(published in The Tuscaloosa News, Wednesday, Dec. 20, 2000)

by Katherine Lee

Photo by Michael E. Palmer

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. - Jim and Betty Crowder got a Christmas wish a little early this year - their 6-year-old granddaughter Whitney, after she was released from Birmingham Children's Hospital Tuesday afternoon.

The rest of the country has also seen Whitney's face under more tragic circumstances as the small victim in the arms of a neighbor, being carried away from the destruction wrought by the weekend tornado that claimed the lives of her father and younger brother.

"She hasn't really talked about it," said Betty Crowder. "We did tell her what happened; so she knows her father and brother are in heaven with Jesus."

Whitney knows nothing of what transpired Sunday morning, when Jim Crowder drove to Bear Creek and identified the body of Whitney's 16-month-old brother, Wesley.

"The coroner told me not to," he said. "He said it would be the worst thing I'd ever see in my life, but I had to."

He pauses to take a breath and blink away tears.

"I'll never be sorry I did it," he said. "I didn't care what shape he'd be in. I just had to make sure it was him, and put him to rest."

The hardest part of the weekend, he said, was going to bed Saturday knowing Wesley was still missing, and waking up Sunday morning to news of his death.

Wesley was found, after an overnight search in temperatures that dropped to mid-20s, beneath a pile of rubble near the intersection of Bear Creek and Old Marion roads, where he lived with his parents, Derrick and Theresa Crowder, and his older sisters, Whitney and Abby, 3.

Derrick Crowder's body was found Saturday near the same spot where Wesley was found. Abby, who has a broken jaw and head injuries, has been upgraded from critical to serious condition, and Theresa, who is in serious condition at UAB, is scheduled for back surgery this morning.

It was the photograph of 6-year-old Whitney that propelled the Crowder family's sad plight into the world's spotlight. The photograph, transmitted around the world via the Associated Press, showed neighbor Mike Harris carrying a badly bruised Whitney through downed power lines and rubble to safety.

Jim and Betty Crowder knew it was their granddaughter in Harris' arms immediately upon seeing the photograph.

"We knew it was Whitney, without a doubt," Jim Crowder said. "It was right where they found Derrick and the baby."

"I'm just so glad people cared that much to go get her," said Betty Crowder. "We'll never be able to repay what Mike Harris for what he did. 'Thank you' sounds kind of pitiful, but thank God he was there for her. There's not words to say what's in our hearts. When she's calmer, I'd like for him to meet Whitney."

The Crowders first heard there was a tornado heading towards Tuscaloosa when they saw it on TV.

"I was in Gordo. I was leaving town," Jim Crowder said.

Theresa had taken the girls Christmas shopping at the mall that morning, and had just arrived back home when the tornado struck.

Betty Crowder was on the phone immediately to her son when she saw the news.

"We talked about 20 minutes, and the last thing he said was, 'Mom, I know about the storm, and I love you.' I said, 'I love you, too, son, and take cover.'"

"That was it. That was the last thing we said."

The Crowders believe their son and his family were running away from the trailer heading for more secure shelter when they were caught in the open.

"We were told they were outside and trying to seek shelter," Betty Crowder said. "Nobody could have changed anything."

Family members have been in and out of the Crowder home in Tuscaloosa all weekend, fielding phone calls from friends and media.

"We appreciate people giving us this time to grieve," Betty Crowder said.

The funerals for Derrick and Wesley will be today. Beyond that, the Crowders don't know their next step.

"We just have to get the girls home and in a stable environment until their mom can take care of them," Betty Crowder said.

Her thoughts are with other grieving families as well.

"I just keeping thinking there's other families doing this same thing," she said, fingering a photo of her son and his family.

"I know what they're feeling."


Assistant city editor Katherine Lee and staff photographer Michael E. Palmer work for The Tuscaloosa News in Tuscaloosa, Ala. They can be reached at katherine.lee@tuscaloosanews.com or michael.palmer@tuscaloosanews.com.

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