Couples, cousins, children and “ordinary folks” were among the 23 people killed when a massive tornado wiped out a rural Alabama community. One family lost 10 relatives and had more hospitalized with serious injuries. Here are some of their stories:
JONATHAN MARQUEZ BOWEN and MYKHAYLA WALDON
Nine-year-old Jonathan Marquez Bowen was a good student who loved video games and superhero movies, his mother told The Associated Press.
“He really was a really loving child. He brought joy to so many people,” said Shamel Hart of Auburn, Alabama.
Hart, Jonathan and his 12-year-old brother Jaylen were visiting 8-year-old Mykhayla Waldon and her family in Beauregard when the tornado hit.
They watched Mykhayla’s dance competition on Saturday, and the girl’s troupe ended up “winning first in just about everything and they ended up taking the huge trophy,” Hart said. “She was great. She was wonderful.”
On Sunday, the families hung out again at Mykhayla’s home. Her mother and Hart are cousins, but Hart said they grew up together and felt more like sisters. She called Mykhayla her niece.
Four adults and five children were in the house when a tornado warning went off on one of their phones.
“By then it was pretty much too late. The tornado was pretty much already there,” Hart said. “We just had enough time to grab all the kids.”
The adults piled on top of the children in a hallway to protect them, Hart said.
“The house just ripped apart in front of us, like the floor snatched clean from under us. Everything was up in the air,” she said.
Jonathan and Mykhayla landed near each other, critically injured. Hart performed CPR on her son and instructed Mykhayla’s mother how to try CPR on the girl, but both children died.
Vicki Braswell was “Nanny” to her grandchildren, as well as everyone else who stopped into the Beauregard home she shared with her daughter, family friend Christy Norris told The Associated Press.
“They called her Nanny, and even I called her Nanny,” she said.
Braswell, 69, moved in with her daughter’s family after retiring from the local community college, where she had worked in administration, Norris said.
She stayed busy, enjoying trips to see her brother and two sisters and making Starbucks runs with her granddaughter and the girl’s friends.
“She just catered to her grandchildren,” Norris said.
The family had been together when the tornado hit, injuring Braswell’s daughter and two grandchildren. Days later, the family was splitting time between visiting Braswell’s daughter in the hospital and sifting through the rubble of their home, looking for photographs of the children when they were young, and for pictures when they all were together, Norris said.
“If you saw their house, you would not believe anyone walked out alive,” Norris said.
The whole community was in shock, she said.
“In a small town like this, to have 23 people killed, that’s a huge amount,” she said. “Everyone will know someone who was killed.”
SHEILA CREECH and MARSHAL LYNN GRIMES
Sheila Creech, 59, had been staying at companion Marshal Lynn Grimes’ home in Alabama while damage from Hurricane Michael was being repaired at her Panama City Beach, Florida, apartment building, her granddaughter said.
Creech and Grimes, also 59, had a long, sometimes tumultuous history, granddaughter Desteni Clifton told the Montgomery Advertiser .
As a young couple, they had two children together, before moving on to new relationships and having more children with other partners, Clifton said.
Two years ago, the internet brought Creech and Grimes back together. They rekindled their romance, even planning marriage.
They had been camping over the weekend, bringing along Taylor Thornton, a friend of Grimes’ 11-year-old daughter, Clifton said.
“I guess they maybe didn’t hear the sirens, or if they did, it was too late for them to get anywhere safe,” Clifton said. “It was a total surprise. She was very young and so was he.”
Grimes’ daughter broke both her legs when the tornado hit, Clifton said.
DAVID WAYNE DEAN
David Wayne Dean, 53, was known as “Roaddog” to his friends for his love of Harley-Davidson motorcycles.
“He loved his Harley. Until I come into the picture, that was his baby,” wife Carol Dean said.
She was at work when the tornado hit. Dean was in their mobile home, texting a friend to beware the storm approaching the Alabama-Georgia line. His body was found on the other side of an embankment in the neighbor’s yard.
“Our son found him,” Carol Dean said between sobs Monday. “He was done and gone before we got to him. My life is gone. He was the reason I lived, the reason that I got up.”
The metal base of their trailer was bent into a U shape around a tree, she said.
She found her wedding dress amid the wreckage and a Father’s Day note to her husband reading, “Daddy, I love you to pieces.”
“He was a wonderful man, a loving, giving man. He took life by the reins and rode,” Carol Dean said.
ARMANDO “AJ” HERNANDEZ JR.
An energetic 6-year-old, Armando Hernandez Jr. was known to everyone as “AJ.”
“He was always happy. Every time you see him, he was smiling. He was very loving,” uncle Jack Crisp said.
Crisp said his brother hunkered down in a closet with AJ and his 10-year-old son, Jordan, as the tornado struck.
“He had them squeezed tight and he said when it came through, it just took them. It just demolished the house and took them,” Crisp said.
AJ, torn from his father’s arms two days after singing in his first-grade class musical, was found dead. His brother and father were hospitalized.
EMMANUEL, JIMMY LEE and MARY LOUISE JONES
Jackie Jones got worried when she saw television reports that said the worst of Sunday’s storm was passing close to the Beauregard house where her parents and two brothers lived.
“I decided I’d call down to the house, and I didn’t get no answer,” she said. “The phone just rang and rang and rang.”
That left her unsettled and she called her other siblings to say she feared something was wrong.
She was right. Her parents’ house had been sheared down to its foundation. Her parents, 83-year-old Mary Louise and 89-year-old Jimmy Lee Jones, and her brother, 53-year-old Emmanuel Jones, were dead.
Another brother also living in the home, 56-year-old Benjamin Jones, survived.
Mary Louise and Jimmy Lee were “ordinary folks” who had been married more than 60 years and had worked on a farm when they were younger, Jackie Jones said.
They enjoyed sitting on their front porch, talking about “the olden days and how they were raised,” she said. Her mother also taught Sunday school for decades.
Her younger brother, Emmanuel, did yard work for neighbors and enjoyed watching football and basketball, especially University of Alabama teams.
Jackie Jones said she hoped to find her mother’s photo albums amid the wreckage, because she does not have any pictures of her parents or brother.
CHARLOTTE ANN MILLER
Charlotte Ann Miller, 59, worked as an accountant to pay the bills, but she also was an accomplished author. She had one son, Justin, 29.
Her publisher, NewSouth Books, said she began writing a “multi-generational saga of the agricultural and cotton mill South” while she was a student at Auburn University, where she received a degree in business administration.
“Behold, This Dreamer,” was published in 2000, followed by “Through a Glass, Darkly” in 2001 and “There Is a River” in 2002. One of Miller’s short stories, “An Alabama Christmas,” was included in a bestselling regional collection in 1999, “Ordinary & Sacred As Blood: Alabama Women Speak.”
Miller was a member of the Georgia Writers Association and the National League of American Pen Women.
RYAN PENCE and FELICIA WOODALL
In Facebook posts, the friends and families of Ryan Pence and Felicia Woodall are remembering the couple as dog lovers and kind friends, with infectious smiles, who were beloved by all who knew them.
Each was 22, and they were engaged to be married. Woodall’s aunt, Angela Pentzer Scott, declined comment to The Associated Press on behalf of both families in a Facebook message.
Scott wrote in one Facebook post that the couple’s relatives trekked through the woods on foot to search for them after the tornado struck their Beauregard home.
“They found one of their puppies alive. Their house is completely gone. There’s absolutely nothing left,” Scott wrote.
The Rev. Billy McClendon, who will officiate at Pence’s memorial service Thursday, said he worked with Pence at the Eufaula Parks and Recreation Department.
McClendon told WRBL-TV that he started texting Pence when he heard about the storm approaching Sunday afternoon.
“He never answered,” McClendon said.
Pence was also a football fan, he said. “He liked Alabama, but he loved the Dallas Cowboys,” McClendon said.
Woodall had lived previously in Panama City, Florida. “It’s so sad,” her friend, Amber Finley, said in a News Herald report . “I don’t know that I have ever met a nicer person.”
MAGGIE DELIGHT ROBINSON, RAYMOND ROBINSON JR. and TRESIA ROBINSON
Maggie Robinson, 57, a nurse at the East Alabama Medical Center, grew up in what one relative calls a “community of familyhood.”
Ten members of that familyhood died when the tornado struck the close-knit town of Beauregard, including Maggie, her 63-year-old cousin Raymond Robinson Jr. and his 62-year-old wife Tresia.
The Robinsons have ties to the Jones, Stenson and Tate families, who live nearby and lost relatives as well.
“We were like sisters and brothers instead of friends and neighbors, and then, of course, cousins,” Monica Jones Harvey said in an Opelika-Auburn News report . She is related to the Jones and Robinson families, and friends with the Stenson and Tate families.
Growing up in Beauregard, Harvey said the families were always at each other’s homes, with the kids playing outside.
“The community of familyhood. That’s what it was. And it’s still like that,” Harvey said.
Maggie Robinson began working at the East Alabama Medical Center when she was 17, and she would have celebrated her 40th anniversary there this summer, the hospital said in a Facebook post.
She began her career as a nursing assistant and earned her nursing degree in 1991.
“Everybody loved Maggie because she made it easy to love her and like her,” Chona Lane, one of her co-workers, said in the hospital’s post. “The Bible says the righteous will be remembered forever — I would like to say I believe that to be true about our Maggie. She had a heart of compassion and was so loving to us and to her patients.”
Reginald Robinson told The Associated Press his sister Maggie was the oldest of four siblings. She loved to travel had made missionary trips to Africa and other places with some of her co-workers.
“She was a giving person. She tried her best to help you out. She always had a smile on her face,” he said.
HENRY LEWIS, FLOREL and ERIC JAMAL STENSON
A niece remembered Henry Lewis Stenson, 65, and wife Florel Stenson, 63, as “the sweetest people.”
“They dated through high school, got married — the sweetest, loving people that you could know — a very good family,” said Katrena Coleman Turner, of Huntsville.
“Uncle Henry was the go-to man. Whatever you needed, you’d call him, he’d come running,” she said.
Turner said her uncle, aunt and cousin Eric Jamal Stenson, 38, were all killed when their mobile home in Opelika was destroyed by the tornado.
Turner said she called her mother – Henry Stenson’s sister — and other relatives to check on them when she heard about the storm. A cousin later called to tell her they had been killed.
“A family member who was out looking for them found them. He found all three of them dead,” she said.
Terry Tate, Florel Stenson’s brother, said Eric Stenson was with his two teenage sons visiting his parents when the storm hit. Eric and his parents were killed; the boys, ages 14 and 17, were injured but survived, Tate said.
All five family members were thrown from the house, which was ripped apart by the force of the storm.
“Words cannot describe the disruption that happened through here,” Tate said.
Ten-year-old Taylor Thornton was among four young children killed by the tornado, authorities said.
The fourth-grade girl who loved to ride horses was as “innocent as she could be,” her mother, Ashley Thornton, said in a WSFA-TV report . “No mean bone in her body whatsoever.”
Taylor had been camping with a friend over the weekend, and she was still at the other girl’s Beauregard home when the tornado hit.
Her father rushed to the scene when there was no word from Taylor. He found only his daughter’s friend and tried to comfort her.
“He said there was nothing left,” Ashley Thornton said.
Despite pressure from deputies, David Thornton refused to leave until his daughter was found, his wife said.
“He said, ‘The only way I am leaving is with her,'” Ashley said. “He carried her out from where she was at.”
MAMIE ROBERTS KOON
Sixty-eight-year-old tornado victim Mamie Roberts Koon loved her grandchildren, her daughter said.
Melissa Hussey told The Associated Press on Tuesday that her family is “devastated” by the news of her mother’s death.
“She was loved by everyone and she will be missed,” said Hussey, who lives in Columbus, Georgia.
Hussey said she and her brother each have children, all of whom Koon adored. She said Koon was from Phenix City, Alabama, and was a retired former ABC liquor store employee.
Hussey said the fact that corporations have offered to pay the funeral costs for all 23 victims is a big help.
“That’ll take a load off the family,” she said.