TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- It is impossible not to notice the sky, strange as that seems in the surroundings. A sea of blue, it stretches as far as the eye can see, interrupted only by occasional jet contrails, such as those left above Alabama by Air Force One earlier that day. A lifetime's worth of muscle memory formed from similar sunny spring afternoons suggests pleasure, but far from welcoming, all that really registers in it is emptiness and potential malevolence.
Where the noise of birds and insects should be, there are often the sporadic sounds of sirens approaching and receding.
The open sky feels like a void. It is not the only one in Tuscaloosa.
"It's like a movie scene," Alabama softball coach Patrick Murphy said Friday. "You try to tell people what it's like, but unless you're here seeing it up close, you can't understand what it's like."
On Wednesday, one of the deadliest strings of tornadoes in recent American history cut through the Southeast. More than a mile wide, the tornado that touched down in Tuscaloosa late in the afternoon dwarfed even 101,821-seat Bryant-Denny Stadium, a contrast captured on viral video from a nearby third-story apartment, and tore a path of destruction through the city. It left at least 39 confirmed dead, according to the Tuscaloosa News, with hundreds still unaccounted for in the city, as of Friday. Hundreds more were left temporarily or permanently adrift, unable to reach homes that still stood near areas of concentrated damage or able to reach homes that no longer existed. Monetary damages are sure to climb quickly into the hundreds of millions, if not more.
Amidst such a toll of human suffering, a softball team, or any athletic endeavor, fades into meaninglessness as an entity unto itself. Scores and games will matter again soon enough, perhaps even need to matter again to many as part of the process by which a community regains some sense of normalcy. But not immediately, not with people digging through rubble in what remains of houses for what remains of memories. Yet in the very act of being of no more or no less consequence than any other residents on Wednesday afternoon, a team's story is that of a city.
Fate's fickleness -- it's hard to call it anything else looking at an invisible line separating destruction from discomfort along the tornado's track -- spared the players and coaches a direct hit by less than a mile, as most residents were eventually and thankfully spared direct hits that day. But the storm also left reminders of those people and places not spared: cars flipped and piled like a child's discarded toys alongside Interstate 359, entire neighborhoods flattened in a manner more thorough than any military could hope to muster. And a less visible mental residue, among those for whom relief at escaping the storm's seconds of fury, has become the challenge of how to clean up, help out and somehow move on in the days, weeks and months ahead.
"You're not prepared for that," Murphy said of Wednesday's events. "They don't teach you coaching softball how to prepare for an EF4 tornado."
Impending inclement weather had already forced the cancelation of Alabama's originally scheduled home game against UAB as the day of the storm arrived. Instead of preparing for that, the No. 6 Crimson Tide (42-7) gathered for an afternoon practice at their indoor facility adjacent to the team's stadium. But after initially retreating to an interior room within the facility as the storm approached and intensified, the players and coaches scrambled into an impromptu evacuation -- piling everyone into the four cars parked nearest the facility and driving the mile or so to Coleman Coliseum, a predetermined point of refuge on campus.
Even that relocation did not necessarily raise the prospect of mortal fear -- you don't live in tornado country without developing a healthy respect for the power of weather and also a familiarity with false alarms and near-misses. The team made itself at home in the well-appointed gymnastics locker room, a perk afforded when freshman Jordan Patterson, daughter of the school's gymnastic coaches, knew the code for the door lock. There they continued to watch developments on television, seeing the funnel cloud on screen at about the same point in time the power went out. Already occupying a sub-ground level of the Coliseum, the team was then ushered down one more level still, now joined by roughly 200 other university administrators, coaches and other staff in rooms dimly lit by emergency lighting.
It was at that point, as cell phone video of events outside filtered in with another late arrival, that the full scope of the event started to take root. Murphy found a computer with power and an Internet connection and used Twitter and Facebook to update family unable to reach any of the players on their cell phones. He watched the online news simulcasts as the twister appeared headed directly for a mall where sophomore All-American Kayla Braud's grandparents were then on toward the neighborhood where pitching coach Vann Stuedemann lived. It missed the mall, leveling a drug store a couple hundred yards away and somehow left Stuedemann's house intact amidst destruction around it. Throughout the city, inches and yards wrote such stories.
When finally allowed to leave the arena more than three hours after the storm hit, the team emerged into darkness and uncertainty. Only the former faded with morning's arrival.
Alabama's three-game series against Kentucky was the only athletic event scheduled for campus over the weekend (in the wake of the storm, the school canceled the remainder of final exams and postponed commencement until August), but playing in Tuscaloosa was ruled out in deference to becoming a potential logistical distraction so near the devastation. There was discussion about playing the games in Birmingham, an hour north, or even at Kentucky, but in talking to his players, at least four or five of whom knew people killed in storm, it was clear to Murphy that playing anywhere was the wrong choice. For people who have put as many hundreds of hours into a task as the softball team, essentially surrendering any chance to repeat as conference champions was consequential. Just not on the same scale as what players saw when they set out on foot and carried cases of water into ground zero the day after the tornado. The players would then head home -- their real homes out of town -- asked to assemble again for practice the following Tuesday.
"We want to win the SEC," Murphy said of the conflicting emotions his players expressed. "But two blocks away, there are people suffering tremendously. That's a lot to deal with as college kids."
One of the areas hardest hit by the tornado, the Forest Lake neighborhood offered a full array of such suffering. Even as many residents tried to salvage what items they could from destroyed homes before powerless darkness enveloped the area and the city's 8 p.m. curfew took effect, nature's power was evident. A car thrown into a yard lay subsequently crushed under a tree. Portions of the road remained precariously peaked and cracked, trees having been uprooted with such force as to rip right through the asphalt. Sheet metal wrapped like twisty-ties around tree stumps, building corners and wrecked cars. But both more poignant and somehow more terrifying was a house with little more than its exterior walls still standing -- except for two bookcases visible through empty windows, books still visible on the shelves, the last rays of sunlight meeting no resistance in shining down on them from above.
An Iowa native, Murphy is no stranger to deadly storms. But even as he talked about watching from the basement window slits as one such tornado wreaked havoc when he was a boy, he sounded a final refrain heard far and wide here.
"I saw my swing set doing cartwheels across the backyard," Murphy recalled of that childhood storm, along with the memory of a neighbor's flattened house. "But nothing like this."
Nobody has seen anything like this.
With the players dispersed home and no games to coach, Murphy spent Friday and Saturday helping to unload supplies at an emergency services center and a trailer out at one of the scenes -- much of Tuscaloosa's emergency infrastructure took a direct hit, complicating the task of unloading, organizing and distributing the supplies on hand and arriving from the outside world. As many hands as offered to help were of use. At one point Friday, he overheard another worker state a summary of what a particular group of new arrivals needed, the simple words stunning in the story they told as Murphy turned to look at a family of five, the name tags they wore an almost defiant rejection of nature's attempt to obliterate them.
"They need everything," the worker said.
A city now mourns those it has lost, a number sadly sure to climb in coming days. And even as it does, it also must go about rebuilding the commerce and confidence that were also casualties of nature at its most terrifying. At some point, aftermath becomes recovery. The softball team will gather Tuesday in the same place it fled days before, and Murphy will search for words to explain what comes next and how they move on without letting that dark mile-wide cloud destroy still more. How will he do it?
"I don't know," he said, his voice trailing away into momentary silence. "I don't know."
Nobody completely escapes something like this; some aspect of the void remains long after the rubble is cleared away and life and ballgames resume. The lucky ones are simply the books on the shelves in that house in Forest Lake, framed against the backdrop of a brilliant blue sky, still standing and waiting for what comes next.
Graham Hays covers women's college softball for ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn.com. Follow him on Twitter: @grahamhays.