The violent tornadoes that left a trail of death and destruction across the American Southeast last week hit tragically close to home for Winnipeg Goldeyes right-hander Ace Walker.
Walker lived until last year in Tuscaloosa, Ala., the epicentre of the worst devastation, and among the 340 found dead so far was a friend and fellow student, Loryn Brown.
"It's pretty insane," said Walker, who lived in Tuscaloosa from 2008-10 while studying at the University of Alabama. "You don't think something like that can happen to someone so close to you... It's just something you never thought would affect you."
Brown, 21, and Walker, 27, lived in the same apartment complex while Walker was a student and the pair became good friends.
"We'd be out on the balconies and talk. She'd watch movies with me and my roommates. We'd cook for her -- all that kind of stuff," said Walker. "For two years, we became really good friends.
"She was a really sweet girl. It's just so sad that happened. That whole area is really devastated right now. There's two (other) people I still haven't heard from."
Walker said he was in his hometown of Prague, Okla., last week working on a mural -- Walker is an accomplished artist -- and was unable to sleep.
He said he was surfing through his Facebook history when he came across a message from Brown written Wednesday night, the night of the tornadoes -- "I'm surrounded by pillows, I'm scared to death."
It was the last time anyone heard from Brown. Walker said he called Brown's best friend the following day and confirmed a report he saw on Facebook that Brown was among the dead that night.
It was stunning news and a loss Walker had hours to ponder as he drove from Oklahoma to Winnipeg on Friday, arriving late Saturday morning just as his Goldeyes teammates opened training camp at Shaw Park.
All of which made for a sombre backdrop for a man who is otherwise thrilled to be back in Winnipeg for a fourth season.
"I'm ready to be back and cannot wait for the games to start," said Walker. "I kept myself in shape and I'm ready to go. Let's get this thing going."
Walker said Brown had recently moved from the apartment complex he shared with her to a house downtown that was right in the middle of a two-kilometre wide swath that the tornado travelled through Tuscaloosa.
News accounts in Alabama say it appears the tornado lifted Brown's home directly off its foundation and then dropped it back down. Brown was found dead in a stairwell -- where experts say you are supposed to seek shelter from tornadoes -- along with her roommate, Danielle Downs, and Downs's boyfriend.
Brown's father, Shannon Brown, was a lineman at the University of Alabama and his daughter was a big sports fan and softball player. A former beauty pageant contestant, she was studying to become a sportscaster and hoped to someday work on ESPN.
Her funeral is scheduled for Monday in Wetumpka, Ala.
In a twist of tragic irony, Walker was one of two Goldeyes players to have a friend die in Alabama last week. Shortstop Wes Long lost his best friend, who also died suddenly but in an incident that had nothing to do with the tornadoes.
Long was given a personal leave from the Goldeyes to fly down to Alabama this weekend. He will rejoin the team in Gary, Ind., on Tuesday, where the Fish play their first pre-season game against the RailCats.