WINFIELD, Ala. (WIAT) — On Wednesday night, in the time between Christmas and New Year’s Day, Winfield’s downtown spilled into its streets.
For blocks of the city’s main drag, roofs, trees, and vintage signs from Mike Hynds’ antique shop covered the ground, blown there by a suspected tornado that touched down in Winfield as fast-moving thunderstorms made their way across Alabama.
The day after, Winfield’s residents filled the places where havoc had been. They traded jokes and knowing nods and tried to find the owners of items they’d found flung into their own back yards.
When Sammy Smith, a contracted volunteer for Winfield Fire, sat across from Monica Downs at a picnic table outside Pizza Bar on Thursday, he tried to downplay what he’d done for the high school sophomore the night before.
Downs was one of six people — four employees and two customers — that were briefly trapped inside Pizza Bar after the suspected tornado blew over the building. The bricks of Mike Hynds’ antique store, pieces of its roof, and live electrical wires prevented them from safely exiting the building.
“I walked in the back door, and I walked them out,” Smith said matter-of-factly. “I walked in the back door, and I said, ‘Hey, let’s go.’”
In two groups, Smith escorted all six people to the fire station.
Asked how he knows Monica Downs, Smith looked across the white, plastic picnic table at her.
“This is family,” he said, his voice breaking for the first time. “We are all family.”
Catie Merchant, who owns Pizza Bar with her husband, also sat around the picnic table on Thursday, talking with neighbors and friends as they passed. Merchant and her husband were in Tampa when the store’s manager called to tell her what happened.
“The roof’s gone,” she told her.
But the devastation left in the wake of a tornado isn’t something unfamiliar to those in Winfield. As locals talked to reporters, linemen, workers and each other, memories of Hackleburg surfaced.
In 2011, a tornado touched down in that town, just 30 miles to Winfield’s north. It would become the deadliest in Alabama history, killing 72 people.
Russ Luepnitz, wearing an Alabama hat and watching workers move debris, said his family bought a storm shelter after Hackleburg. On Wednesday night, they put it to use.
Luepnitz’s 10-year-old grandson said he was only “kinda scared” as the storm passed by.
“It was me, my MawMaw, my PawPaw here, and then my friends and my mom,” he said. “I hate it for everybody that’s in Winfield.”
He said he’d eaten at Pizza Bar “many times” and it was “crazy” that people had been trapped inside, even if only for a few minutes.
“I hate that for people, though, I really do,” the boy said, watching with his grandfather as workers slowly but surely hauled Mike Hynds’ walls away.
Unlike in Hackleberg a decade ago, no one was reported as injured or killed by Wednesday night’s suspected tornado.
Catie Merchant said she’s not surprised.
“People around here, they take it serious,” she said.
But Mike Hynds still has a message for folks in the path of a storm.
“When they say warning, take the warning,” he said.
Standing in front of his Winfield Antique Mall, it’s inside exposed to the open air, Hynds became emotional not about his material losses, but about the love he’s seen pour out of those in Winfield and beyond.
He said he’s received around 500 messages since the storm.
Of those, Hynds said, one kind of message means the most.
“’I’m praying for you,’” Hynds said, tears beginning to well up behind his glasses. “Just being here to help. That’s all we can do.”