Enterprising Alabama teen restocks Greensburg's library

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By Mark Anderson, Editor
Photos by Mark Anderson
Originally appeared in the Kiowa County Signal on Nov 28, 2007

Christopher Skrzypczak carries books to Susan Staats' classroom

Though Greensburg has been visited by scores of individuals with greater clout and name recognition since its utter destruction by the May 4 tornado, none have come to Kiowa County in recent months with a greater sense of purpose than did 17-year-old Christopher Skrzypczak last Friday.

With his mother Sonja, two younger brothers and little sister, Skrzypczak traveled to Greensburg last week with a trailer full of books to help restock the town’s library. They left last Wednesday afternoon from their home in Enterprise, Alabama, site of an F-4 tornado last March 1 that killed eight of the teen’s fellow students as they huddled in a hallway just outside their classrooms.

Recovering the riches of reading…

Having given thought before that fateful day to possible projects to earn his Eagle Scout status, Skrzypczak began considering a book drive late last April.

“I was reading a book one afternoon and thought of how great an escape from life’s problems reading can be, especially problems of starting over after a natural disaster,” he said. “After our school was destroyed by the storm, we still had most of our books, though a lot of them were in storage.

“I thought of the kids who lived where Katrina had hit, and how they probably didn’t have anything to read, so I figured on getting as many books as I could for a community in that area.”

A week later, Skrzypczak learned of the tornadic destruction of Greensburg. While no students had lost their lives in the disaster, he discovered the damage there was far more extensive.

“It struck a chord with me as soon as I saw the pictures on television,” he said. “Because of the tornado we’d just had I was able to empathize with the people there and knew right then and there that was where I wanted to send as many books as possible for my project.”

Treasure trove in a trailer…

Sonja was able to make contact with Learning Center Director Susan Staats in late July about her son’s interest and soon had the channels cleared for the effort. It wasn’t until mid-October, however, that Christopher got the final okay from his scout council to pursue the project.

By the time the Skrzypczak’s made it to Greensburg early last Friday afternoon Christopher had been successful enough to make sure the trailer they’d towed from Alabama was filled with over 500 books, many of them new.

The sophomore had convinced the local Wal-Mart to donate 300 volumes, and had collected nearly another 150 from book drops at the local Domino’s Pizza and community college, where his high school is now holding classes. Funds raised also enabled him to spend over a thousand dollars at Barnes and Noble at nearby Dothan on new volumes sold at a discount.

Though he felt it important to personally deliver the books, many friends back in Enterprise had urged him to simply ship the donation instead.

“‘Why go to that trouble?’ people would ask me,” Skrzypczak recalled. “But I wanted to deliver them personally and meet some of the people there I already felt I had a connection with because of the disasters we both went through.”

“Most definitely,” was the Alabaman’s quick response when asked if the trip north had been worthwhile. He spoke of keeping in touch with a pair of Greensburg scouts—Bryce and Brandon Yohn—who’d shown up with Staats and several other locals to unload the bound bounty.

An apparent false alarm…

Though Skrzypczak hadn’t personally known any of the eight fellow Enterprise High students killed that Thursday afternoon last March, he’d been huddled in the same hallway, less than 50 feet from where a wall had collapsed on the doomed teens.

He remembers his World History class having been interrupted around 11:50 that morning by an announcement of a severe weather bulletin over the PA system—nearly an hour before the tornado warning was issued at 12:47, and nearly 90 minutes before the funnel cloud actually hit the school around 1:15 p.m.

“No one took it very seriously when they moved us to the hallway,” Skrzypczak said. “People were joking around, laughing, singing songs. I figured maybe we’d have some severe weather, but nothing like a tornado.”

Several students departed before the killer struck—those whose parents were able to get away from work to make it to the school in time. Most, however, remained behind, sharing Skrzypczak’s boredom over what was appearing to be a false alarm.

Shortly after 1:10, the driving rain abruptly halted, leading the students to think the worst was over. A few moments later, however, Skrzypczak felt his ears pop due to a sudden change in pressure, plunging him for the first time into a fearful state.

The killer finally arrives…

“The lights went out right after that, and there was a moment of panic and then kids starting laughing again,” Skrzypczak said. Seconds later a skylight almost directly over the sophomore’s head was violently ripped from the hallway ceiling. The screams of hysteria returned in greater intensity, refusing to recede until survivors had fled the campus minutes later to the sanctuary of a nearby church.

“After the skylight was ripped out, I looked up through the hole where it had been, and saw some really funny-looking clouds,” Skrzypczak continued. “And then, all hell broke loose. While I was looking up at the ceiling I saw it get lifted and carried off. I mean, the roof just disappeared before my eyes.

“Then I felt it start to suck me up toward where the roof had been. It had pulled me at least six inches off the floor when I grabbed the guy next to me and pulled myself back down. We all did that to each other, like a domino-effect.”

Aware that many tornado survivors recall the sound of the storm being like that of a giant locomotive, Skrzypczak likened the noise to a faster mode of transportation.

“It didn’t roar like a train,” he said. “It screamed like a hundred jet fighters all at once. It was just this terrible, high-pitched scream of the wind mixed in with all the kids screaming at the top of their lungs.

“That screaming sound was cutting through me like a knife while I was being sucked up off the floor and I knew I wasn’t going to make it, so I said my prayers as quick as I could.”

Blind, dazed and powerless to help…

Seconds later, the screaming, hissing snake from above had moved on, leaving Skrzypczak and his fellow students huddled in a hallway with no roof, students’ screams and sobs now free to flow skyward, up and beyond the flattened school.

Shaking his head free of debris sent Skrzypczak’s glasses flying. Unable to recover his spectacles, he decided against trying to help fellow students.

“I’m blind as a bat without my glasses, and didn’t want to get in anyone’s way,” he said. “It made me mad I couldn’t see anything, because I wanted to help other kids out.”

Julie Andrews, honorary chair of National Library Week 2008

Julie Andrews is the honorary chair of National Library Week 2008, April 13–19. Read, watch, listen to, or download National Library Week announcements starring the legendary actor.

The teen was able, however, to detect movement nearby and couldn’t help but notice tipped over lockers moving a few feet away. “I figured people were under them, and found out later I was right,” he said.

His sense of hearing was, of course, unaffected and perhaps heightened by the effectual loss of his sight.

“A lot of people were crying and screaming, all around me, from every direction,” he said. “I knew people had to be hurt and that probably some of them were dying, but I couldn’t see enough to help them, so I stumbled away before something worse happened.”

Once outside the collapsed hallway, Skrzypczak heard familiar voices calling to him. Friends like Matt and Kim approached, asking if he were all right. “Have you seen Rachel?” they asked of a mutual friend no one could locate. “No,” he replied. “I can’t see much of anything.”

Rachel, it later turned out, had been one of those trapped beneath the lockers pushed over by a collapsed wall. Other than cracked ribs and a fractured arm, she emerged unhurt, in far better shape than eight others.

No one went to school at Enterprise for nearly a month. This term, classes are held on the campus of the local community college, noon till 5 p.m., Monday through Friday, thanks to the school holding most of its classes in the morning.

The trailers and mobile classrooms Skrzypczak found at Greensburg’s temporary school campus last Friday looked all too familiar. “We go to a lot of classes the same way at the junior college,” he said.

“A dream come true…”

Having found the level of destruction at Greensburg to be “about what I’d expected,” Skrzypczak hopes to return in a year or two to see how far the town has progressed by that time. Of course, he’ll have to get time off from his new job, offered to him recently by the Barnes and Noble outlet in nearby Dothan after his successful purchase of dozens of volumes from the retailer at a 20 percent discount.

“I’ll wait until I’m 18 next week and finished with my Eagle Scout interviews before taking the job,” he said. Without a vehicle, Skrzypczak said that will soon change because of his mom having promised him a $1,000 birthday gift because of his determination to make a difference in Greensburg.

“I’m going to buy a cheap car, or make a motor bike so I can commute to my new job in Dothan,” he said. “But however I get there, getting a job like that in a bookstore is like a dream come true. I can’t think of a better place to work. I can’t believe they’re actually going to pay me to be there.”