- Associated Press - Sunday, December 20, 2015

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. (AP) - Michael Harris walked through shredded insulation, wires, fallen trees and warped metal frames that once held mobile homes. He carried an unconscious girl in his arms, her bare arms and legs smudged with dirt and her blonde hair tangled.

That image was captured in a photo by a Tuscaloosa News photographer on Dec. 16, 2000, and distributed by news wires around the world.

The F4 tornado, the single deadliest tornado in the United States that year, tore through the Taylorville area. The storm left 18 miles of damage in Tuscaloosa County, leveling Bear Creek Trailer Park where the 6-year-old girl in the photo, Whitney Crowder, lived.

The tornado killed 11 people and injured 144.

Among the dead were the girl’s 26-year-old father, Derek Crowder and her 16-month-old brother, Wesley Crowder. The tornado left her mother with a broken back and her sister with broken bones in her face and some brain damage.

“The only thing I have is about an 8-inch scar on my left leg” from a piece of debris, Whitney Crowder Daly said.

Dec. 16 was the 15-year anniversary of the December 2000 tornado, but Daly said she tries not to think about it because she said it’s like a bad omen. Her family seems to always experience bad luck around its anniversary, she said.

“Sometimes it’s crazy to think it was 15 years ago. Dec. 16 is always going to be a day that sticks in our minds,” but she said she has left the devastation in her past.

Daly is now married to a petty officer in the U.S. Navy and lives in Bremerton, Washington, where tornadoes are extremely rare. She is a stay-at-home wife and student and will earn her associate’s degree in mathematics next year.

Daly, now 21, said the tornado was a bad experience, and it left devastation in its wake, but she is a better person for it.

“I believe it has definitely shaped me into the person I am today,” Daly said. “I believe that experience definitely helped me to grow up and understand life happens. It pushed me to be a better person. It pushed me to go as far as I can to make the most of what I have. If it hadn’t happened, I wouldn’t be where I am.”

Her mother, Teresa Sellers, said Daly had to grow up a little faster than most kids after the tornado. She said Daly had to help out a lot around the house and became an emotional shoulder for Sellers to cry on.

“She had a little bit more of a load than what an average child would have with two parents,” Sellers said. But “she learned how to hold a home together.”

Sellers, who remarried, now lives in Cottondale with her husband. Since the tornado, she had one daughter and has two step-children.

She said it took a long time for her to let her children out of her sight after the tornado, and it took about a month for her to get over the emotional toll of Daly moving across the country.

But Daly will visit for Christmas, and the family will go to her father and brother’s graves, Sellers said.

Daly said she may look at her father and brother’s photographs and see strangers, but she is a lot closer to her mom, siblings and father’s grandparents because the tornado pulled them together even though it tore everything else apart.

“Things happen, and it makes you love more. It makes you stronger. It changes you in many different ways,” Sellers said.

But, “I’m OK,” Daly said.

___

Information from: The Tuscaloosa News, http://www.tuscaloosanews.com

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