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Tornado Outbreak Destroys Truckstop, Damages Shippers Throughout the South

You can see what’s left of a trailer in this photo of tornado damage in Tuscaloosa, Ala., shot by a WTI Transport employee.

By Tom Nunlist, Associate Editor, and Deborah Lockridge, Editor in Chief

[UPDATED] Damaged trucks at Glad Spring Petro station revised up from 40 to 300.

Tornadoes that ravaged wide swaths of the South Wednesday demolished a Virginia truckstop and dealt damage to several trucking companies.

In the worst outbreak since 1974, 164 tornadoes blitzed 13 states on Wednesday, killing at least 230 people. Alabama was hit hardest with an estimated 128 deaths, prompting President Obama to declare a state of emergency there.

Varying amounts of damage were inflicted on the trucking industry in several states. A Petro truckstop along I-81 in Glade Spring, Va., was destroyed in a direct hit by one of the twisters. Over 300 tractor-trailers were overturned or destroyed, some thrown onto the freeway. According to reports, large amounts of diesel fuel were spilled in the roadway and into a nearby sediment pond – teams of hazmat workers were dispatched to clean up the fuel.

Although there were no reported fatalities at the Petro station, the tornado claimed at least 13 lives in the surrounding area.

One driver called in with an eyewitness report to “The Lockridge Report” on Sirius XM’s Road Dog trucking channel Thursday, saying he was at the Virginia truckstop. “Bill,” a flatbed driver, was trying to reach Knoxville when he decided to pull over because of the reports of tornadoes.

“I never do this, but I parked between two reefer trucks for wind blockage. It still moved my truck, and I’m almost 80,000 pounds.” He said it didn’t sound like a freight train, as many people compare the sound of tornadoes; “It was more like thunder on the ground, amplified 50 times.”

The trucks right beside him were turned over, he said, and every truck appeared to have some damage even if it was still upright. “I saw two 2x4s driven into a sleeper,” he said. “One truck driver was digging glass out of his pockets.”

The restaurant area of the truckstop was used by emergency workers to treat the injured, despite part of a wall that was missing, drivers said.

Drivers reported other truckstops with less severe damage, including a Pilot in Winona, Miss., and the Petro west of Birmingham, Ala., where power was out and a driver reported seeing fences down, light poles snapped off, and trees pulled up.

Alabama hard-hit

Another massive storm left residential areas decimated in Tuscaloosa and Birmingham, Ala., but appears to have missed many major carriers in the area.

The tornado dodged Ross Neely Truck Lines by half a block, yet the terminal received only minor roof damage. The storm, which hit around 6 p.m. Wednesday evening, virtually wiped out a residential neighborhood directly behind the terminal.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Tommy Neely, president, describing the nearby devastation. “The sad thing about is that we are in a [poor] section of town.” Neely said one of his drivers took refuge in a tractor yesterday and watched the twister go by.

Neely said downed phone lines and internet are his biggest headache. He said the company will be able to run normally today, but he is dispatching trucks remotely where he can find internet access.

Nearby, the Birmingham terminal of AAA Cooper was unharmed, but had a variety of debris, such as aluminum siding and blankets, dropped onto its facility by the tornado. “If you go out of our terminal and turn to the right and go to the top of the hill past Western Express, it looks like a war zone out there,” said Terry Clouser, director of maintenance.

Davis Hauling of Tuscaloosa had another near miss — just an eighth of a mile. Jeff Handler, operations manager, said the company was undamaged and they currently are trying to organize a relief effort.

Boyd Brothers was not as lucky. The company’s terminal in Birmingham had its roof ripped off, said Darren Lee, vice president of Operations of WTI Transport, which uses the terminal along with Boyd. Apparently nobody was hurt, but it is unclear when the terminal will be back online. Boyd also suffered damage to some trailers.

WTI Transport’s Tuscaloosa facility was safe from the storm, which passed about 3 miles south before moving towards Birmingham. An employee was able to safely capture shots of the twister. At least one employee lost her home, but was uninjured. WTI is helping her through the situation.

Shippers affected

While WTI was mostly safe, one of its large shippers, Tamco Roofing in Birmingham, a supplier of shingles and other materials, was destroyed.

“Tamco lost pretty much everything… The area was totally obliterated,” said Lee, noting that nobody at facility was injured. Lee was unable to say when Tamco will be up and running, but said that WTI will suffer some short-term losses due to the situation.

Additionally, several large manufacturers idled operations in Alabama following the storms, mostly due to lack of power. Mercedes-Benz shut down their operations in Tuscaloosa County. In Huntsville, Toyota, Boeing and Northrup Grumman all ceased operations. None of the companies were damaged and will likely resume production in a few days.

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