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School caught between dangers of keeping, releasing students

JAY REEVES • Mar 5, 2007 at 11:21 AM

ENTERPRISE, Ala. - Charles Strickland looked at the parking lot outside Enterprise High School on Friday, pointing to where a tornado had thrown students' cars around and tossed some against the building.

A day earlier, school officials had planned to dismiss classes early because of severe weather. But after learning of the approaching twister, they held students a little longer. Within minutes, the tornado hit and killed eight people in an avalanche of concrete and metal.

"If they'd let us out, they'd be looking at 50 to 300 dead." said Strickland, a senior at the school.

On Friday, some students and their families questioned whether classes should have been dismissed earlier, since administrators were warned about the weather nearly three hours before the twister struck.

Residents of the neighborhood surrounding the school said they heard warning sirens long before the tornado slammed into the building.

"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.

But school officials said they had no chance to evacuate earlier because of the approaching severe weather. And others said the carnage would have been greater if students had been outside or on the road when the storm arrived.

Gov. Bob Riley defended administrators' actions after a tour of the school.

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

The last of the bodies were removed Friday.

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

The eight students were among 20 people killed Thursday in Alabama, Georgia and Missouri by tornadoes contained in a line of thunderstorms that stretched from Minnesota to the Gulf Coast. The storms damaged or destroyed hundreds of homes, toppled trees and knocked down power lines. In Enterprise, a town of 22,000 people, more than 50 people were hurt.

President Bush planned to visit two of the storm-damaged areas Saturday. The destinations were still being worked out Friday with governors in the affected states.

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

Many students left school after the initial warnings, and administrators decided to dismiss classes at 1 p.m., before the worst of the weather was forecast to strike, Phares said.

But with hundreds of students still huddled inside the school, emergency management officials warned that a possible twister was on the way and advised school 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 the victims.

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

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

Looking at the remains of their school, Ammons and three classmates wondered whether students should have been sent home after the first warnings were issued.

But English teacher Beverly Thompson said dismissing students moments before the storm arrived would have risked many more deaths.

"Imagine those kids in the parking lot sitting in those cars," she said.

Mitch Edwards, spokesman for the Alabama Board of Education, said the state requires schools to conduct weather drills and review safety plans. But the decision on whether 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."

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