Tornado-hit Alabama town copes with destruction, loss

ATLANTA Sun May 1, 2011 5:45pm EDT

1 of 2. A choir performs during a Sunday church service amid devastation, at the site of the Phil Campbell Church of God, destroyed in a deadly tornado April 27, in Phil Campbell, Alabama May 1, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Lee Celano

ATLANTA (Reuters) - In the small Alabama town of Phil Campbell, where a tornado killed 20 people and wiped out 40 percent of the homes, church services went on Sunday amid the destruction and loss.

At the Phil Campbell Church of God, parishioners sat on folding chairs on a bare concrete slab, all that remained of the building, as a bulldozer operated nearby and heavily damaged houses served as a backdrop.

Pastor Chris Burns delivered his sermon behind a six-foot chunk of what was left of the altar and in front of a makeshift cross with a hand-lettered message reading: "He makes all things new."

Burns, who lost his home in the deadly tornado that struck Phil Campbell on Wednesday, told the congregation that "there is hope, the sun will rise tomorrow" despite the tragedy.

"Today is not just a day of life as usual. It's a day that we celebrate life," Burns said. "We celebrate a resurrection from the rubble, from the destruction."

Elsewhere in Phil Campbell, residents sought to cope with the massive clean-up task amid tragic and horrific scenes.

Along State Route 24 just outside of town, a field was dotted with the bodies of 50 dead horses. Buzzards circled the remains of a chicken house where a few surviving birds still fluttered.

Meanwhile 9-year-old Eric Chaney has personally taken on the task of searching for the toys of his friend, Garrett Wade LeCleare, who is in serious condition at a Birmingham hospital.

The five-year-old boy lost both parents in the deadly twister that struck his home.

"He loved this car!" Chaney said as he pulled a "Lightning McQueen" toy from the rubble.

Chaney pulled a wheelbarrow, slowly filling it with toys he recognized from hours of playing with his friend "who followed him everywhere," his mother, Tonya Chaney, told Reuters.

Chaney said she plans to adopt now-orphaned Garrett, who does not yet know his parents died. His half-sister remains in a local hospital, and his brother was safely visiting grandparents.

(Reporting by Mike Cooper, Verna Gates and Matthew Bigg, writing by Dan Whitcomb, editing by Ellen Wulfhorst)