Differing Stories Emerge About Alabama Students Seeking Shelter During Deadly Tornado

The only thing an Alabama school district and a hotel agree on about what happened when Mobile-area fourth-graders scrambled for storm shelter at the Embassy Suites in Montgomery is that a tornado was bearing down on the region.

But after that, the stories diverge sharply. Spanish Fort School officials attest that those on the field trip were denied access to the hotel when they asked to ride out the twister inside. Embassy Suites managers insist they can find no evidence that one of its employees turned the group of 75 away on March 1.

The elementary school field trip was touring the Alabama state capital when the rains came, the winds swelled and tornado warning sirens began blaring intermittently across town. When they decided to take refuge about 3:30 p.m., they were in the visitor's center, located in the historic Union Train Station.

Train station employees informed the group that they couldn't house them there for long because of an event going on inside, said spokesman Terry Wilhite of Baldwin County Schools, Spanish Fort's district. So the parents, teachers and children trudged to the nearby Embassy Suites.

There, an unidentified employee at the hotel turned the group away, the school district said.

"They asked, could they take the students out of harm's way," said Wilhite. "They were told they could not. It was a scary moment for students, parents and teachers. It's unimaginable when tornado sirens are sounding that such a school group would be denied safety and shelter."

But the hotel paints a very different picture of what happened that day — with managers questioning whether the incident ever took place at all.

"I think it's a fictitious story," said Embassy Suites Interim General Manager Tim Peters. "Nobody ever needs permission to walk into a hotel. The hotel was very busy — who knows if they talked to someone who didn't even represent the hotel."

Peters, who was out of town that week, believes there must have been a miscommunication, because people stream in and out all day and would not be shooed away for standing inside.

Aside from the possibility that the group may spoken to a non-Embassy Suites employee — or someone who didn't have authority — Peters speculated there may have been a misunderstanding about what was being asked for. If a staff member thought the group needed rooms for everyone, for instance, the hotel couldn't have accommodated them because it was full, he said.

But no one who was working at the hotel that day seems to know anything about what happened, and no one from the school or district has called Embassy Suites to discuss the matter further, according to Peters. He also said the train station denies telling the group they needed to leave the visitor's center there in the first place.

Another of the Embassy Suites' general managers who was on duty March 1 hadn't heard the story until earlier this week when a local TV station called inquiring about it, according to Peters — who admitted it was also possible that someone on his staff was lying. If that turns out to be the case, he said, he'd act on it accordingly.

"I would like to discipline them and coach them on how to handle a similar situation in the future," he said. "I certainly apologize if someone felt they were denied access to the hotel."

School spokesman Wilhite also doesn't know who from the group went into the hotel and whom they spoke to there, though he and another district official guessed it was someone at the front desk.

Luckily, he said, Montgomery Mayor Bobby Bright and his assistant Michael Briddel were called by the train station and sprang into action, quickly finding a safe, dry place for excursion participants to wait out the storm at the nearby Armory Learning and Arts Center.

"A city employee saved the day," Wilhite said. "The city's administrative assistant became aware of what was happening and, working with the mayor, found a safe haven very close by that the students and the group were able to enter. The city graciously even fed our group hotdogs."

The whole ordeal of finding a place to go only lasted about 10 to 15 minutes, he explained, and the children were never in any grave danger. The tornados that swirled through the area that day ultimately did leave about 20 dead in Alabama, Missouri and Georgia — including eight Alabama high school students — but most of the worst weather wasn't in the capital city the Spanish Fort children were visiting.

The group stayed in the learning center in Montgomery, about a 2 1/2-hour drive from their home base in the Mobile area, from about 4 until 8 at night, when the local emergency management team deemed it safe for them to leave.

He said the teachers and parents "did an excellent job" keeping the students calm through the storm, but it was harrowing for everyone, in spite of the fact that twisters are no strangers to these parts. Baldwin County has the highest rate of tornados of any county in the state of Alabama, according to Wilhite.

"We're very accustomed to tornados," he said. "Our students practice tornado drills … They know what to do: Get into a sturdy structure and put their heads in their laps."

Peters said that since the story surfaced, he has talked to all his employees to remind them of the policy of letting people wait inside the facility, especially under dire circumstances like violent weather.

"Our hotel would always do the right thing and allow anybody in for safe harbor in any emergency or disaster situation," he said. "I've made sure everyone understood that we're open to the public, and anyone's allowed to come in or out of the hotel as freely as possible."

Whatever happened that day at Embassy Suites, Wilhite said Spanish Fort School has moved on.

"We're not angry or upset at anybody, and we're over it," Wilhite said. "We're not sure who originated this story, but we certainly accept Embassy Suites' apology. Hopefully it will be a learning experience."