The Battle of Pilgrim’s Rest

Pilgrim's Rest subdivision approximately 36 hours after the tornadoes.

Imagine walking out your front door and seeing a lovely neighborhood reduced to rubble.

I speak in shame because we’re one of the fortunate families who still has a front door.  Looking out of it, there is a numbing disbelief at what we see.

We’re still only days into the aftermath of the deadly tornadoes that swept suburban Birmingham, Alabama before the shell-shocked dawn of January 23.

I’ve never been in a war.  But this must be what bombs and battles leave behind.  Surely, a savage twister tore this area as good as most any man-made missile could do.

Pilgrim's Rest subdivision (background, the 2nd row of houses) before the January 23 tornadoes.

Only days ago, these homes — not just houses — were safe havens for families from the cruel world outside.  Jogging past them in summer and winter, heat and cold, one could mark the seasons of our neighbors’ lives.  A new baby.  A new car.  A kid home from college.  The first mowed grass of spring. The paint palette of autumn on every tree in every lawn.

It has changed things forever.

We still don’t know where many of these families physically are right now.  Sure, they’re in hotels, apartments, hopefully with supportive extended family.  But, we believe some are still in hospital.  Six people left here in ambulances, three in critical condition.

The stories.  Oh, the stories we’ve both heard and the ones that dance like specters in our minds.

There’s one story about a neighbor who I’ll call Mr. Winthrop.  That’s not his real name.  Mr. Winthrop has a special needs granddaughter for whom he is principal caregiver.  A neighbor says Mr. Winthrop, in the screaming seconds before the tornado hit, shielded his granddaughter in her upright wheelchair with his body wrapped around it and her.

Mr. Winthrop took on the tornado in utter darkness.  Last we heard, despite two collapsed lungs and multiple contusions, Mr. Winthrop survives and is at a local hospital.  His granddaughter I hear is doing well.  His house doesn’t exist anymore.

Swarms of precious-hearted volunteers have poured in to the area.   Even some University of Alabama football players came through on Saturday, helping an Auburn-oriented neighbor pry and haul heavy logs.  True love transcends the artificial walls we build between each other.

Love will help win this long, protracted struggle to return to life — the next Battle of Pilgrim’s Rest.

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About

Bill Todd, APR, is President and Partner at o2ideas, a creative advertising agency in Birmingham, Alabama. His career spans Business Management, Advertising, Public Relations, and Journalism. He has also served as a spokesman for one of the nation's largest telecommunications companies and as a TV news reporter in Birmingham. He has a B.A. in Communications from the University of Alabama, an M.A. in European History from the University of Alabama at Birmingham, and an M.B.A. from Auburn University. He is also Accredited in Public Relations (APR).

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6 comments on “The Battle of Pilgrim’s Rest
  1. Mike Wood says:

    Heart wrenching story of your observations, Mr. Todd. As a law enforcement officer responding to the area, I can appreciate your feelings. It was one of the most horrible things I shall ever witness. Thank you for your testimony.

  2. Bill Todd says:

    Officer Wood, THANK YOU for responding and serving this area and its people! We are grateful to you and your fellow responders. I can’t imagine what that’s like, especially in situations like these. Thanks for reading and commenting!

  3. Sheila Sutton says:

    Thanks, Bill. You put into words what so many of us feel. We are in an apartment for the next several months until our house can be rebuilt. I am so grateful for being alive and well. I do miss my little house and my precious neighbors and I will be eternally grateful for the many volunteers who have been here since just a few hours after it hit. We should have a gigantic block party. One day….soon!

  4. Doug Wood says:

    Thanks, Bill, for echoing our feelings too. We are the last house standing on Plymouth Rock Drive, just next to Mr. Winthrop’s house. He is out of the hospital and came to Pilgrim’s Rest on Tuesday to see it for the first time since rescuers pulled him from the rubble of the basement where they were hiding from the tornado.

    There is an intense sadness we feel, especially at night when everyone leaves and our neighborhood is shrouded in darkness. I never thought the flashing lights from a police vehicle would be such a comfort but they are a welcome sight as I peer around the corner of my house.

    Even in this sadness there is a glimmer of hope as we see the mammoth debris piles removed and hints of reconstruction appear hear and there. If some of our neighbors do not return, we mourn their departing, some may not want to wait as long as it will take to rebuild their homes.

    We do, however, welcome those families who will come and build their homes in our community. May they come and enjoy all of the wonderful things that we have enjoyed for the past eight years in Pilgrim’s Rest.

    Doug and Sonia Wood
    Pilgrim’s Rest, Trussville, Alabama

    • Bill Todd says:

      Doug and Sonia, I’m still trembling over your comments. We look your way every night, and as we leave for work each morning. I’ve jogged past your house countless times but never met you in person. We are close to you and please tell me any way I can help you. If nothing else I hope to meet you in person in the coming days. By the way, thank you so much for the update on Mr. Winthrop.

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