In 2021, the state of Alabama, the United States and the world as a whole has been trudging forward to achieve a return to normalcy. While in years past the word ‘normal’ might have been used to define the boring, the mundane and the everyday, the term nowadays represents the moving on from a tragedy; the representation of a bygone era prior to any hardship and difficult obstacle.
Who would have thought that the word ‘normal’ might one day almost be revered and romanticized?
While on a much smaller scale, a decade ago the people of the small city of Tuscaloosa were striving for the same ideal of normalcy. On April 27, 2011, the city was shaken to its core when an EF-4 tornado decimated the landscape, killing 53 people and injuring over 1,200.
Amidst the rubble were possessions, tarnished and ruined by the winds, rain and devastating force that the tornado had wreaked. While the stories of the dead might remain often untold, the stories of the living — the survivors — serve an equally foreboding tale of caution.
Josh Rosecrans and Nathan Kilcrease, two former University of Alabama baseball players who lived in Tuscaloosa through the destruction, are two of those survivors.
The story of Josh Rosecrans was one of the more astonishing ones to rise from the debris and rubble from that fateful April day 10 years ago. The man has maintained since then that outside forces were the only thing that kept him alive.
Fate and faith are often intertwined, and Rosecrans’ story proves just that.
After wrapping up practices during the baseball season, Rosecrans’ typical routine included heading over to his girlfriend’s house to visit. Her apartment was located in a different area of town — one entirely missed by the tornado — but to Rosecrans, April 27 was a different day.
“A lot of weird things happened,” Rosecrans said. “There was definitely another force at play. I usually would go over to hang out with my girlfriend at the time — go over to her house after school — but my roommate, he ended up having a nerve block that day so he was pretty out of it. So he was sleeping and I ended up going home just to check on him and stuff like that and sure enough, that’s when chaos ensued.”
Rosecrans’ roommate was Nathan Kennedy, a pitcher compared to Rosecrans, who was a catcher and designated hitter. Following the procedure, Rosecrans decided to go and check on his roommate, knowing that he was likely not feeling well and sleeping.
That decision put him right in the tornado’s path.
Rosecrans knew there was supposed to be some bad weather that day. However, bad weather over the last week had dulled his attentiveness to it as it often does to individuals who frequently hear repetitive alerts.
Being from Oklahoma, Rosecrans was quite used to the threat of tornadoes.
“It pretty much just seemed like a normal day,” Rosecrans said. “A couple of days before we had had some bad weather leading up to it and we had had some tornado warnings and stuff like that leading up to it. So when they said there was going to be tornadoes again we were just, like, ‘Yeah, OK whatever.’ Other than that it was just pretty much a regular day.”
Upon finding Kennedy asleep, Rosecrans turned on the TV. When the weather grew from bad to worse, though, Kennedy woke up and joined Rosecrans in the living room, turning the channel to see what weather was headed their direction.
“We were watching it on TV and they said, ‘It looks like it’s headed toward McFarland Mall,’ which is right by us,” Rosecrans said. “So we went outside and we could hear it. It was pretty calm. No rain or anything. We could hear it right across the way but we couldn’t see anything because of the tall pines, the tall cedars there you couldn’t really see anything.”
Unbeknownst to the duo, the tornado was headed directly for them.
Nevertheless, they were prepared. Mattress at the ready, both continued to stand outside and watch the weather progressively grow more and more violent. Staring across a small lake located near their home just south of 15th Street, a sudden flash of a power line was the signal to find shelter, and quick.
“All of a sudden we saw a power flash and we were right across the way and we were like, ‘Oh my gosh, we’d better get inside,’” Rosecrans said. “We first tried to go into Nate’s bathroom with a mattress and the mattress wouldn’t fit. He had, like, a sliding glass door. So we hurried up and ran to my bathroom. We were there, like, 30 seconds and then it hit.
“I was thinking, ‘Really? Is this how this is going to go? This is how it’s going to end? A tornado of all things?’”
After roughly a minute of the storm swirling around them, with Rosecrans laying in the tub and Kennedy on top of him, mattress shielding them both from the sky, the storm suddenly quieted down as quickly as it had arrived.
Gathering up the courage within himself, Rosecrans moved aside the mattress to survey his surroundings.
“He was kind of in my lap so I lift the mattress and just kind of peeked over,” Rosecrans said. “And the first thing I see is nothing. We were outside. Our cars were in our living room and just debris was all in front of us everywhere. There was nothing left but the bathroom we were in.”
Their house was otherwise completely demolished. A warm breeze from the outside world brushed across their faces as they gazed over what had been their home.
Had the pair gone into Kennedy’s bathroom rather than Rosecrans’, they likely would have died on the spot.
“The first thing I said was, ‘Oh my gosh, Nate, everything’s gone,” Rosecrans recalled. “Then I actually giggled a little bit. I said, ‘Dude, we actually made that. I can’t believe we just made that.’”
Less than a half mile away from Rosecrans and Kennedy, fellow pitcher Kilcrease was also experiencing the fallout from the storm.
To him, like Rosecrans, the day started out just like any other.
“Living in the South your whole life you hear, ‘Hey, there’s supposed to be bad weather today,’ and you never think anything of it,” said the popular pitcher known as 'Peanut.' “It was just a normal day. I think there was a patch of storms that had come through the area earlier that morning and some trees had blown down on campus but we didn’t think anything of it.
“We get home from practice and Coach [Mitch] Gaspard had said for us to keep an eye on the weather before we leave, which looking back on it was kind of odd because he had never told us to do that before. So I guess he believed the forecast a little more than we all did. We all checked the radar and there wasn’t even as much as a cloud in the sky so we all went home.”
He lived near the corner of 2nd Avenue East and Hargrove Road. Kilcrease joined his housemates: pitchers Troy Sutherland and Tucker Hawley along with Sutherland’s brother in front of two TVs set up in their living room. On one, the group was playing a PGA Tour video game. The other showed a local TV station.
As the sky grew dark outside and the weather worsened, the local channel flipped over to report on the storms.
“We had probably been home for about an hour or so and it pops up on the TV that this humongous tornado was headed straight for Tuscaloosa, straight for the university,” Kilcrease said. “We kinda watched where it’s at and where they’re saying it’s going and we just kinda track it where it’s heading and you’re like, ‘Oh God, it’s headed right for my house.’”
After checking outside and not being able to see the tornado, the four headed inside and found the power had shut off. They crammed into their laundry room, an interior room that was surrounded by brick walls that they felt was the safest place inside their residence.
“And then it clears up and 20 minutes go by and we’re like, ‘OK, we have to be good, that thing’s moved quickly,’” Kilcrease said. “So we go outside and we look out around us and everything’s fine and then we get to the end of the driveway and look left and you could see all the way to the hospital.”
As the crow flies, DCH Regional Medical Center was located approximately a mile north of where Kilcrease and his housemates were located. Where once stood homes, apartments and businesses, there was nothing but debris.
The group quickly jumped into their vehicles and began driving around their local area to check on friends and neighbors.
“We got into Tucker’s truck and rode around asking if everyone was ok," Kilcrease said. "I’ll never unsee some of the stuff I saw that day. People’s body parts laying everywhere. It was literally like if I was in a war. That’s the only thing that I could relate to it is if I was in a war, this is what it could be like. Just mass destruction.”
The Return to Normalcy
A few hours after the tornado passed, both Rosecrans and Kilcrease were finally able to get in touch with Gaspard. Due to phone lines and cell towers being down in many areas, network traffic thwarted them from their calls getting through. Contact with the outside world was at a bare minimum.
It took Kilcrease until later that night to tell his dad that he was alright.
“I think I got a call from Gaspard probably a couple of hours afterwards because nobody could get through to anybody,” Kilcrease said. “I don’t think I could talk to my dad that night until about nine o’clock — not because I didn’t try, but because I couldn’t get a call to come through.”
Just two days later on Friday, the baseball team resumed its season with a trip to Starkville to play at Mississippi State. To the team, it offered a a small sense of normalcy. To the players, though, it was anything but.
How could they play baseball when back at home people were struggling to pick up the pieces of their livelihoods and deal with the deaths of friends and loved ones?
“That was the hard part,” Kilcrease said. “You tried really hard in your head to say ‘Let’s go play baseball, we’re good, everything’s going to be ok, get back to normal.’ Just to get together as a team, stay in the hotel a little longer — try to get away from everything that was going on back home. In doing so we were able to get away with a little bit of normalcy being apart but you’ll never forget — as much as you try — what you left behind when you left.”
While it was difficult to head out of town at such a desperate time, Rosecrans said that doing so also provided the team with motivation for the series against the Bulldogs.
“We wanted to play for the city,” Rosecrans said. “Everything that was going on, all the people that had lost a loved one — we just wanted to bring back some form of happiness, some kind of normal just because the city was in such turmoil at that time.”
The Crimson Tide won its first two games during a Saturday doubleheader. Moreover, the games gave the players a brief escape, even if just for a few hours, after seeing so much horror and devastation that week.
In the months and years that followed, both players graduated from Alabama with degrees in human environmental sciences. Rosecrans moved back to his home state of Oklahoma to work in medical device sales, while Kilcrease, after playing some minor-league baseball as well as coaching at the collegiate level, stayed in the game. He currently coaches travel ball out of Columbus, Ga.
On top of adjusting to their new lives, 10 years later both players say that they learned a lot about themselves on April 27, 2011.
Rosecrans learned the value of the little things in life and how not to take things for granted.
“You never know when life can be taken from you,” Rosecrans said. “Like my parents say, I don’t think I’ve changed but they say I’ve changed since then. From that day on, they say that all the little things in life, they say that I definitely changed from that day on and it made me more appreciative of life itself. Life is short and you just can’t take it for granted because it can be snatched from you in a moment’s notice.”
Kilcrease vowed he will never ignore a warning siren again.
"There were warnings, and every single day nothing ever happened," Kilcrease said. "But now with the technology being so much better, they can be a lot better with their predictions, I don’t take warnings lightly. If it storms all night, I’m up all night. I guess I got a little PTSD from it.
“My life’s changed. I live every day now like it could be my last. I just enjoy life. I try to make everybody’s day a little better when they come in contact with me because you never know when it could be somebody’s last.”
This is the sixth story in a weeklong series about the 10-year anniversary of the Tuscaloosa tornado.