Ten years after a tornado with the fury of 200 mph winds tore the foundation from the ground at the Lawrence County home of Noe and Carolyn Guzman and killed their 12-year-old daughter Aurelia, the pain remains for surviving family members.
Noe Guzman Jr., who was nine when his sister was among 234 people killed in Alabama by the April 27, 2011, tornado outbreak, says in the aftermath he lost his fluency in Spanish, became a “little comedian” as a self-defense mechanism and developed PTSD.
Noe Sr. says he still has constant fears about the safety of his other children.
Carolyn says the memories of the tragedy remain fresh even though it occurred a decade ago Tuesday, and tears still flow.
“There’s not a day that goes by we don’t talk about Aurelia,” Carolyn said. “Most of the time it seems like it happened yesterday. Things will never be normal without her. This week has been particularly rough with the anniversary coming up.”
Aurelia was among three people killed in the rural Chalybeate community by the tornado that also claimed 11 other lives in Lawrence County. Four people died in Limestone County. Three area residents living in Tuscaloosa died when tornadoes leveled parts of the city.
Nationwide, 319 people were killed that day when 199 tornadoes tore through the South.
It was the deadliest day of tornadoes in the United States since March 21, 1932, according to a study conducted by Kevin Knupp and the University of Alabama in Huntsville.
The Guzman home along Lawrence County 214 took a direct hit from the EF5 tornado that tore clothes off family members’ bodies.
“I miss my little girl every day,” Noe Sr. said. “(The birth of) Juan (in 2014) has taken some of the pain off her loss, but there’s still an empty spot in my life and heart because of Aurelia’s death.”
Carolyn Guzman, 42, said that on Thursday she was at the Moulton Recreation Center ball fields watching a game with her son Juan, now 6, and “I broke down and started crying. I remember watching Aurelia on that same field three days before the tornado hit, three days before she died.”
‘We’re in trouble’
Nine people were in the Guzman home in 2011 when the sky turned dark.
Noe Sr., 52, said he was on the back porch praying when son Dakota, now 24, came in the house and told everybody to get in the hallway.
Dakota had seen debris flying in the air, his dad recalled.
“He said, ‘Dad, we’re in trouble.’ I was going to the hallway and looked out the window and saw a house trailer flying by and then the house just exploded,” Noe Sr. said.
He said six of the nine people, including Aurelia, ended up trapped underneath the family’s business van, most of them with parts of their clothes sucked off by the tornado. Aurelia, a sixth grader at Moulton Middle School, died when the van was lifted off her. Everyone else was injured, some worse than others, but have recovered.
Noe Sr. suffered two broken arms and three injuries to the head and spent five days in the hospital. He said he couldn’t dial a telephone or drive for about eight weeks.
The owner of Guzman Painting Co. for 20 years, Noe Sr. said about a year after the tragedy, he went to the cemetery to talk with Aurelia.
“I asked God, ‘Why my daughter?’ I was very angry, very upset with him. I didn’t want my kids to see me like that,” he said. “We will make it but I didn’t want them to see me as weak but they knew I was struggling. I don’t want my kids to blame it on God. I told them it was part of life. Through all of this, God never left me. I know I went through a hard time but he never left me.”
He said he keeps a closer eye on his children now.
“I find myself being more protective of Noe and Juan,” he said. “Juan is only six and has his own phone just for the reason I want to be sure he’s OK.”
Noe Jr., now 19, said he was forced to “grow up faster” than other kids his age. The change in him was pronounced, he said.
“When you’re nine, everything is about toys and fighting with your siblings,” he said. “I had to grow up very young. I was fighting the worst fight of my life. That tornado shaped me. I became a little comedian. I felt like I had to lighten the mood of the people around me as well as myself. I think being a little comedian around the house was my defense mechanism.”
“I’ve seen the dark times. It’s a struggle going through this with the family,” continued Noe Jr., a pipefitter and plumber’s helper with M&D Mechanical of Decatur. “I had family and church that helped me through a lot of it.”
He said he wasn’t the smartest kid in school but saw a change in his personality.
“I became more of a rowdy child after (the tornado). I got into some fights and sometimes I was the class clown,” he said. “I needed attention. Now, in a blunt way, I can say I was a kid crying out for help.”
Noe Jr. recalled never losing consciousness through the tornado. He said he was lifted about 20 feet in the air and landed on the hood of a car and was bent over backward.
Wearing only shorts and a shirt, he said, he walked through a maze of downed power lines and swam through a dip in the driveway to get help at Mayes Store about a quarter-mile away.
“A shirt and shorts were the only things I had on,” he said. “The tornado ripped my shoes and other clothes off me. I was walking across live power lines and had to swim out of the driveway. It was by the grace of God I wasn’t electrocuted.”
He said he suffered a bad concussion and cuts on his head, face and body. He lost his ability to speak Spanish, his first language. His father is from Mexico.
“I forgot all of my Spanish and had to get help to speak English again,” he said. “Before the tornado, I could talk easily in Spanish and now I have learned to understand and speak some basic Spanish phrases. But I can’t carry on a conversation in Spanish.”
He said he suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and feels very uneasy when bad weather moves into the area.
A couple of months ago, he was working on a job site in Huntsville one day when the weather got dark and windy.
“I told my supervisors I had to leave,” he said. “I felt the warm air and cool air together, and it reminded me of the tornado. I realized on the job I would have been a liability to myself and my coworkers.” He said tornadoes touched down in Mississippi and Tennessee that day.
“Since I was about 14, I began following weather and alerts more closely,” he said. “Then I started getting scared whenever (the weather) is bad.”
He feels love for his family has grown stronger, and he no longer takes the little things in life for granted.
“I call my parents when I’m going somewhere, and when I get there,” he said. “Some of my teenage friends thought it was weird and strange, but it’s part of my life. I cherish my close friendships now. If I am having a hard time, I can count on them.”
He said he grew more respectful of his adult supervisors, too.
He said he remembers only having the clothes on his back after the tornado when Talitha Shelton, assistant principal at Moulton Elementary School, brought the family clothes.
“Everything we had was destroyed or flew away. Being a 9-year-old kid with the only clothes you had were given to you is quite a humbling experience,” he said. “Ms. Shelton, that’s a good person.”
Family and friends
The family said it took friends and God to get them through the tragedy.
“People say Moulton and Lawrence County residents are racists,” Noe Sr. said. “But I’m from Mexico. My skin is brown and I haven’t seen (racism). We had people from all over the county bring us food, clothes, things we needed. It was amazing. Lawrence County is a great place to live. We love it here.”
The Guzmans have rebuilt their house a few yards south of where the destroyed house sat. They talk about Aurelia on a regular basis.
“She loved her church, she loved God and wanted to be an attorney,” her dad said. “She would have been a good attorney too. She liked to argue and liked always being right.”
Mom said she is at peace knowing Aurelia is in heaven.
“Things will never be normal, but we know she’s with the Lord,” Carolyn said. “She was all about going to church. If she was missing, and we couldn’t find her, it would be miserable. I know that some families are dealing with that. Our little girl is with God.”
Noe Jr. added, “Hold your family and your close friends tight.”