M.J. DiDio was in his 10th-floor dorm room Wednesday of last week when the sirens started. It was maybe the fourth time this month, he said, nothing unusual. He and his friends weren't about to take cover.

"Then all of a sudden, it just turned completely black," the 19-year-old, reached by phone in Alabama on Saturday, said of the sky. "You could see it coming toward the ground. Then it started to go across."

One of the most destructive tornadoes in American history was barreling through Tuscaloosa, Ala. In a matter of minutes, it would level entire swaths of buildings and send trees, cars and people through the air. By Saturday morning, the state saw at least 250 people killed, and more than 350 died throughout the Southeast, according to news reports. At least a couple of the dead were from the University of Alabama, where DiDio is a freshman.

Seeing the funnel cloud form at his bedroom window, DiDio snapped a couple of cellphone pictures and ran for the staircase.

"It was coming right for us, that's what it looked like," he said. "I was not about to sit up here."

Fairfield to Alabama

Last year, as a senior at Fairfield Prep, DiDio and five classmates decided to head south after graduation. The president of the University of Alabama, a 1958 alumnus of Fairfield Prep, had come to campus to recruit students. It was a long way from Fairfield, but DiDio never considered weather patterns.

"When I think of a tornado I think of Kansas or Oklahoma," he said. "I guess I was wrong."

Classes started Aug. 10. There were no tornadoes. The sirens wouldn't start wailing until early spring. The first school year was nearly finished. Final exams were scheduled for this week.

Now, students are facing a choice: Take final exams online from home, or take their final grades as they were Wednesday morning. DiDio is taking the second option.

"I'm flying home Tuesday," he said. "I'm going to get home and get going with summer."

The students, of course, then have another choice: return to school in Alabama?

"Apparently this is the second-worst tornado ... in history," DiDio said. "I'm just going to go from here like there won't be another like this."

Worried mom

His mother, Stacey, started dealing with the twisters two months ago.

She'd be on the phone with M.J. as a funnel cloud would touch down 1,000 miles away, and the University of Alabama sirens would sail through the airwaves into Fairfield.

"My stomach has been in knots," she said. "It just keeps happening."

On Wednesday, she came home from work around 5 p.m., turned on the news, and saw the severe weather warning in effect for Tuscaloosa. She sent M.J. a text message: "Please be alert about this," she said.

Within the hour, M.J. texted back. He sent a picture of the soupy sky turning black; the black sky funneling into a wide, gray cone; the gray cone perhaps a mile away.

"And I'm thinking to myself, `Where is he, that he's able to take this picture?' " she said. Then she adds: "And that I hope he's mature enough to go down and seek shelter."

Gimme shelter

After bounding down 10 flights of stairs, DiDio arrived at the ground floor.

Several hundred students were crammed into the bottom three stories of the 13-floor building, the supposed safe zone during tornadoes.

The lights were flickering. The doors were flying open. At a nearby construction project, the cranes were spinning in circles, he said. "It sounded like a train was going by."

Pulling out his cellphone again, he tried texting his father. "But my hands can't really touch the pad," he says. "My hands are shaking so badly. And my heart is like, I feel like I was having a heart attack."

The ensuing moments, he said, were mayhem. And then it was over.

With the Internet down and cellphone service spotty, DiDio managed to contact his sister and let her know he was fine. The Fairfield Prep parents had been calling each other, asking if they'd spoken with their children.

In Tuscaloosa, DiDio and a couple of others tried heading off campus. They couldn't make it. Trees and power lines were down. Lights were out. Looting was taking place.

"It was pretty much like taking a bomb and bombing the area," he said. "It's all rubble. There's nothing downtown. Where you have to come in from the highway, the main road, where all the good places are that people go to from campus, the `Welcome to Alabama' signs, that's all gone."