The government sued last fall to close an assisted living facility where nine elderly, disabled people lived in two double-wide mobile homes parked in a valley miles from the nearest town. Yet the facility was still open April 27, when a tornado smacked the mobile homes and killed four residents along with the owner, his daughter-in-law and 7-year-old granddaughter.
The state filed suit because Shoal Creek Valley Assisted Living didn't have a license — the fact that it was illegally operating in mobile homes wasn't even mentioned in the complaint. But months passed, winter turned to spring, and the place remained open. Then came the day tornadoes killed more than 200 people across Alabama.
One of those tornadoes, an EF-4 with winds as strong as 180 mph, wiped out the homes in a direct hit, leaving only twisted metal, splintered wood and seven bodies scattered across a horse pasture. That nondescript plot of land about 45 miles northeast of Birmingham was the site of the South's largest cluster of deaths on that epic day of misery.
While other cities and counties suffered more total fatalities in the twisters last month, state emergency management officials across the Southeast said they know of no other single location where more people died in the April outbreak. However, the destruction was so total in some places that it's impossible to determine exactly where some people died, and other victims remain hospitalized.
No one will ever know if the seven people who died in the assisted living center would have survived in a more substantial structure, but 71 patients escaped without injury when another tornado struck the brick-and-masonry La Rocca Nursing Home in Tuscaloosa about 90 minutes before Shoal Creek Valley's trailers were demolished.