Montgomery, Ala., Nov. 15, 2006 - High winds and relentless rain swept through central Alabama Wednesday, part of a powerful storm system that steamed through Alabama spawning tornados. The center of the damage was along a major Montgomery highway and a group of preschoolers was caught in the storm's path.
The Fun Zone off Atlanta Highway was right in the path of the storm -- it was destroyed. Inside the building as the storm came through, 31 kids in a preschool that operates inside the building. Remarkably, all are safe.
Liberty Duke, the lady who runs the Learning Zone, was in the middle of it all. She says parents trust her to take care of their children. There was a child in her care that was 8.5 weeks old. She says she didn't have much warning, although she knew there was the potential of severe weather on Wednesday.
Because severe weather was possible, Duke says she and her staff kept all the kids downstairs. She says the first sign of trouble came when the power went out. In less than 30 seconds, the building was gone.
Some children including Duke's own son, were on the Fun Zone side of the building when the storm hit. Duke says they had to pull those children out of the debris.
"Even if they had been squatting down, they would not have made it so my staff was down on the ground with them and there was chaos and the anxiety of losing any of your little ones and teams that you've worked with for a long time. But they (the staff) were all there. They did what they were supposed to and I just can't tell them how much I appreciate them."
Medics took two children to the hospital, including Duke's son, Justice. Both children had only minor injuries. Her son received 14 stitches to the top of his head.
Despite the destruction, the center's owners are breathing a huge sigh of relief that all the children are safe.
Moments after the tornado hit, shortly after 10 a.m., the Fun Zone looked like a war zone. Concerned bystanders knew there were children inside the day care center.
There were some passersby who were so brave, running to help in the effort to get the children trapped in the mass of twisted metal and concrete.
Needless to say when parents were first showing up they were panicked; they were grief stricken, they didn't know what to expect when they got to the scene. But those feelings gave way to relief when they were reunited with their young ones thanks to the efforts of, in many cases, complete strangers. One of those who helped was Lewis Harrison.
Harrison describes what was happening, "A couple of people were trying to get out. I busted through the glass door with a cinder block and went through and we all just started the human chain to get the kids out. The children were rushed to safety. Mayor Bobby Bright told WSFA, "We have 31 children that were in the Fun Zone at the time of the touchdown. We have accounted for all 31. We had four adults, but they're accounted for."
Tempers flared as anxious parents tried to get to their children. Those preschoolers were rushed to a staging area until they could be reunited with their parents.
One parent said the first thing he was going to do with his son was "give him a bath to get the debris out of his eyes."
Fun Zone owners were in Atlanta when they got the news. "The office manager called us just hysterical and said that the building was gone... We had just got to downtown Atlanta when we got a phone call...So, we turned around and we came back. Thank goodness everybody's alive. Everybody that was in the building was able to get out. Some cool-headed employees at the day care, the Learning Zone, were able to get the kids out safely."
Mayor Bright said one of the employees of the Learning Zone was to be commended because if she had not taken those kids where she did, we would have had a very different ending.
The owners agree, "The Learning Zone did an excellent job of getting those kids to where they needed to be. All we could think about coming from Atlanta was were the kids okay."
"We were on the phone constantly coming back from Atlanta about the status of the kids. Until we got word that they were all okay, that everybody was fine, we just...we found out four of them got taken to Jackson Hospital .."
The McAlwains took a business idea, made it into a dream, only to see it turn into a nightmare. "The business can be rebuilt. There were quite a few kids in the building and several employees and we just thank God they (the employees) kept their heads level."
The owners say they have insurance "so we'll just see what tomorrow brings and see how the rebuilding process will go. Montgomery needs a Fun Zone - we'll be back. We love the people here in Montgomery."