ENTERPRISE, Ala. – Residents of this city devastated by a tornado that killed eight high school students paused from recovery efforts Sunday to mourn at church services, where some lined up to hug and offer words of encouragement for the school superintendent.
First Baptist Church parishioners gave Superintendent Jim Reese a standing ovation after the pastor thanked him for his service to the community.
Some in this southeast Alabama city of 22,000 wondered whether officials at Enterprise High School erred by not sending students home early on Thursday after they learned of the tornado warnings. Instead, students waited hours, and the storm hit the school.
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 hit.
At the church, a line formed of people waiting to hug Reese, shake his hand or offer words of encouragement.
"I've just never been so proud of a group of people," he told The Associated Press, referring to the "many heroes" at the high school.
Nancy Jennings, a math teacher at the school, sat with a group of students in a front pew during the service. She was in the hallway of the school where the roof collapsed and the students were killed.
"It just all happened so suddenly," Jennings said, dabbing tears from her red-rimmed eyes. "When I saw the roof had fallen, I'm so amazed we only lost eight. It's so tragic that we lost eight, but I am so grateful we were able to save the people we could."
Among those sitting with Jennings was 17-year-old Brett Johnson, a senior at Enterprise High.
Limping slightly and with his wrist wrapped in a bandage, Johnson said he needed to come to church for himself, but that he was eager to get back outside to help wherever he was needed.
He wasn't in the hallway that collapsed at the school, killing his classmates, but two of his close friends were among the dead. He was injured afterward, when a slab of concrete fell against him while he helped dig out fellow students in the hours immediately following the storm.
"We'll make it through. There's no doubt in mind about that. It's just a really strong community," Johnson said.
Schools in Enterprise won't open this week, but Reese said he's doing everything he can to ensure that high school students have a space to hold classes as soon as possible. Funerals for some of the students will be held Monday and Tuesday, while arrangements for the others are still being made.
Disaster recovery centers to aid storm victims opened Sunday as bulldozers clearing debris moved up and down streets. Insurance company vans drove through neighborhoods filled with residents still picking up scattered possessions and storm wreckage.
"I just want everybody to really keep these families in their prayers because those were precious children that were lost," Jennings said, "and we all feel like they were our family."