By Rachel Bennett
TUSCALOOSA, AL (RNN) - Students at the University of Alabama hunkered down as a massive, mile-wide tornado came within a mile of the campus that houses thousands of people. It became the site of terror many of them had never before experienced.
As the tornado approached, journalism student Aldo Amato took shelter with others in the Reese Phifer building, adjacent to Bryant-Denny stadium.
"It sounded just like they describe it, as a freight train," he said.
Junior Michael Neese, a business student, was even closer to the path of destruction that left several blocks leveled. Buildings, restaurants and stores were reduced to piles of rubble after the twister roared through.
"It was like a white cloud just twirling in the parking lot next door to me," he said.
He was in his apartment, right next to the path, marking where normalcy ends and grand-scale destruction begins.
Neese said he lost power and took cover in a concrete stairwell in the middle of his building.
"All of 15th Street is gone," he said.
Amato said he watched his normally stoic professor become visibly shaken through the event.
"That's the most agitated and less confident Chris Roberts I've seen. He was definitely nervous," he said. "Everybody started praying, panicking."
Most students thought the storm would not cause any damage, he said, just like the two storms earlier in the month that came and went.
"I couldn't believe it touched down," he said.
Frightened professors told their students to say their last words, and a girl was crying.
Their fear became terror as they watched the tornado bearing down on them from a TV inside the building.
The tornado bypassed the campus, but plowed through neighborhoods and businesses less than a mile away. The adjacent apartment complexes house hundreds of students.
After the tornado passed, students flocked to the leveled 15th Street, only a couple of blocks away, to see the widespread devastation.
Amato said he and two friends went down to see the area, and couldn't recognize it.
"It looked like somebody bombed 15th Street," Amato said.
Cars were flipped and leaking gas, power lines were down, crates were floating in the lake, trees were snapped in half as far as the eye could see and dazed residents looked in horror, made phone calls and texted friends and family.
A street that once held many restaurants, shopping centers and neighborhoods now looked like the landscape had been swept away by a terrible monster.
Overnight, rescue crews worked to free people trapped in their homes and cars. So far, more than 130 people have been confirmed killed in the state. At least 70 deaths have been confirmed in five other states.
Officials expect the death toll to continue to rise.
"It kept me speechless for a good 30 minutes on 15th Street," Amato said.
That police soon ushered students away from the destruction in fear that a second tornado, in a following storm, was on its way, he said.
"I've never seen such an organized police activity in my life," he said. "I don't think this was expected. The police looked panicked."
He also said most students were dealing with a loss of power, and many, including him, had left to find a friend of family member who lived where the lights still worked.
Neese said he tried to get his girlfriend at the other end of 15th Street after the had storm passed, but couldn't reach her because of the damage.
"I couldn't go down that far," he said. "Power lines and trees were all over the road."
Phone lines were jammed, but Neese eventually received a call from his girlfriend. She was safe in her apartment with her roommate and young dog.
The tornado could be seen blowing through transformers and lighting up the sky with them as it hit the city.
Reports soon began trickling in of debris from Tuscaloosa landing more than 100 miles away in Gadsden, AL.
Building parts could be seen falling from the sky as news cameras watched the wedge tornado, still on the ground, shoot toward heavily populated downtown Birmingham, more than 50 miles away.
The tornado barely skirted around the north of Birmingham.
After the storm passed Tuscaloosa, Neese said students rushed to the Publix on campus, which had electricity, to buy food and beer or to hang out and stay cool in the air-conditioned building.
The University of Alabama canceled classes Thursday. The school opened up the student recreation center for storm victims and offered counseling.
Wednesday night Amato said he was going to keep trying to get in contact with his father, who lives in the northern part of the state in Huntsville, also was also hit by tornadoes earlier in the day.
He said it was hard because cell phone reception was spotty, and he could only receive the occasional incoming phone call.
"I might go up to my local church and see what services are needed."