PHIL CAMPBELL, Ala. — Annihilation seemed to loom as three
deadly tornadoes ripped through the small adjoining towns of Phil Campbell and
Hackleburg, Ala., killing more than 50 people. The storms came about as close
to total destruction as anyone there ever wants to be.
“Fifty percent of our population is displaced,” Tim Haney, pastor of First
Baptist Church in Phil Campbell, said of the nearly 1,100 people in the town.
“We have no power, no water and some people lost everything,” he said, noting
the death toll continued to rise and several people were still missing. Both
towns literally were flattened in parts by the storms April 27.
It was as if a giant weed eater cleared a path nearly a mile wide in Phil
Campbell and more than three miles wide in Hackleburg, Haney said.
Steve Lawrence, pastor of First Baptist Church in Hackleburg, said, “There is
hardly anything left in those three miles. The school is leveled. The stores,
the Wrangler plant and all the houses are gone.”
While some areas were wiped clean as if nothing ever sat there, other areas
contain the splintered remnants of homes, vehicles and businesses.
With all telephone lines down, communication became a serious issue. The towns
seemed cut off from the outside world. News of loved ones flowed through the
communities by word of mouth and sometimes took days to make it to the people
fretting the most.
Still, in both towns, it was the church that became the central point of
communication and the place people gathered throughout the days following the destruction.
First Baptist Phil Campbell suffered only minor structural damage to its main
building and likely will have to rebuild its multipurpose building, but
Mountain View Baptist Church in the same town didn’t fare as well.
“The church is gone, Bro. Sammy. The church is gone.”
Those were the first words Sammy Taylor, pastor of Mountain View Baptist, heard
just seconds after emerging from a storm shelter within sight of the church.
“The building is a total loss,” Taylor told The Alabama Baptist (see the
newspaper’s e-edition at online.thealabamabaptist.org). “But the church is not
the building. The church is the people. We’ll get through this.”
The Mountain View Baptist family lost two church members in the storms, an
adult woman and a 9-year-old boy. First Baptist Phil Campbell lost two adult
No deaths were reported from the First Baptist Hackleburg membership, and
information from Emmanuel Baptist Church in Hackleburg was not available.
While First Baptist Hackleburg received only minor damage, Emmanuel Baptist was
destroyed. The church’s pastor, Gene Thomas, was hospitalized.
Lawrence said his city was in the same shape as Phil Campbell.
“At least 50 percent, if not more, of our people are displaced,” he said of the
more than 1,200 people in the town. So he’s doing the only thing he knows to do
He has organized First Baptist Hackleburg as a resource site for the community
as well as a drop-off and distribution center for clothing and nonperishable
items. Meals are being served in the church’s multipurpose center.
First Baptist Phil Campbell has a similar setup.
Amy Rollins, a member of First Baptist Phil Campbell, was the first to arrive
at the church after the storms rolled through the area. She joined the group
already there taking shelter from the storms and got to work.
“I started setting up for donations for people in need right away,” said
Rollins, whose 6-year-old son Grant worked alongside her. “We don’t really know
what to do, but it makes you feel better to help.”
In both towns, donations and assistance are pouring in from individuals,
churches and businesses across the state. But water, food and clothes are not
all those in need will receive. Haney plans to put a New Testament in their
hands as well.
“We are planning to meet their physical needs and their spiritual needs,” he
said, noting the Sunday service would take place as normal.
“We are out advertising we will be here Sunday,” Haney said April 29, noting an
average Sunday attendance is 110–120.
“You might have a few more this Sunday,” a town resident picking up supplies
from the church whispered in Haney’s ear as he walked by.
“Amen, brother,” Haney said. “I’ve been waiting for you to join us.”
At Mountain View Baptist, the May 1 service was scheduled to take place outside
next to the demolished sanctuary as a time to “be together, pray together and
love on each other,” Taylor said.
The sadness, shock and numbness among residents in Phil Campbell and Hackleburg
stilled the air for any who witnessed the surreal atmosphere surrounding the
“We are shell shocked,” Rollins said. The dazed, robotic movements of those
sifting through piles and piles of debris proved her point.
Taylor said the reality of what has happened has not truly sunk in yet. His
wife Judy said, “I cry a lot.”
She’s not alone. Few people could speak of the horrific event days later
without wiping away tears.
The smell of blood in the air still haunts Haney, and the heaviness of all that
has happened and all that is to come shows in the weariness of the pastors’
“This is so massive,” Haney said. “In the matter of four minutes life as we
know it changed.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE — Rash is managing editor of The Alabama Baptist. Donations to disaster
relief can be made to state conventions, or directly to the North American
Mission Board’s disaster relief fund, at NAMB.net,
or by calling 1-866-407-NAMB (6262). A $10 donation can be made by texting “NAMBDR”
to the number “40579.”)
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