On The Job - Alabama: Killer Tornado Rakes Tuscaloosa Area

Michael Garlock reports on a band of twisters that ripped through the state, killing 12 people and injuring upwards of 75, and singles out a particularly dangerous storm.


TUSCALOOSA FIRE DEPARTMENT Chief Thomas D. Davis Personnel: 204 career firefighters Apparatus: 10 engines, two ladders, one quint, three rescue units, one hazmat, one water rescue, three reserve pumpers, three reserve rescue units Population: 165,000 Area: 68 square miles DUNCANVILLE...


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There was ample warning. The city and county of Tuscaloosa were put under a tornado warning at 12:49 P.M. The tornado touched down 14 minutes later, at 1:03. There are 41 sirens in the city and county and these sirens produce a continuous, earsplitting blast. In addition, fire apparatus sound their horns in incessant blasts.

Tornadoes are not unusual in Alabama and it is reasonable to assume that most citizens associate the sirens with an impending strike or an emphatic advisory to take immediate shelter. The National Weather Service scrawls warnings across the bottom of TV screens and radio stations interrupt broadcasts with alerts.

Englewood, Hillcrest Meadows and Hinton Place (collectively known as Taylorville) are upper-middle-class communities with between 150 and 200 homes. Many are made of brick with vinyl siding, while others are wood-frame. A large percentage of these homes were destroyed. Those that were not flattened received substantial damage.

The Bear Creek Mobile Home Park is a 60-acre site containing approximately 170 mobile homes that have an average size of 980 square feet. Six people lost their lives and 65 homes were destroyed there. Although four barns were flattened, two horses in an open field escaped unharmed. A quarter-mile to the southwest is Oors Trailer Park, a smaller site consisting of between 12 and 25 acres containing 21 spaces for mobile homes. Two people were killed there.

The tornado, which cut a swath 18 miles long by 750 yards wide, also wiped out a Winn Dixie shopping center that was under construction and overturned numerous tractor-trailers, including one that carried 12 Mercedes-Benz M class SUVs recently produced at the nearby Vance Plant. A hotel at Exit 77 on Interstate 59 was also damaged as were other commercial structures, including hotels, fast-food restaurants and truck stops.

The tornado was on the ground from 12:54 to 1:12 and moved from a rural unpopulated area of the Warrior River in the southwest part of the county before racing into an urban area. Ironically, the twister dissipated as it moved into an open, unpopulated area.

Warning Issued

"We were put under a tornado warning for the city at 12:49," Captain Ken Horst, a Tuscaloosa Fire Department EMS supervisor, said. "The tornado hit at 1:03. It first touched down in the Englewood/Taylorville communities. They are unincorporated, but within our jurisdiction. On the day of the tornado, the shift strength was 50. An additional 33 personnel were called in or came in to aid in the rescue effort or to man reserve rescue and pumper units.

"The first engine companies to the scene were Engine 7 with a four-man crew, Rescue 27 (crew of two) and Engine 5 (crew of three). Shift commander Captain Billy Roberts was already enroute from Station 1 due to the TV coverage. I was with my family at home just south of town watching the same coverage from my basement. As soon as I knew that the storm had passed our immediate area, I responded south as well. I live approximately a mile north of the area the tornado struck.

"I arrived at Hinton Place to find heavy damage and multiple injuries. Captain Roberts arrived approximately two minutes later and command was transferred to him and I took the medical division. The initial response occurred while the tornado was still on the ground in the eastern part of Tuscaloosa. The first two alarms that we received were automatic alarms at 1:03 and 1:05."

Tuscaloosa does not receive mutual aid within its city limits. However, inside police department jurisdiction mutual aid comes from volunteer fire departments, of which there are 22 in the county. There are two ambulance services in Tuscaloosa and one locally owned company. The Bear Creek Mobile Home Park is on the fringe of the Tuscaloosa Fire Department's jurisdiction.

"I was the first one on the scene as EMS supervisor," Horst said. "We had major damage to Hinton Place. Highway 69, a major north-south artery, runs through Taylorville and Englewood and we had numerous vehicles and their occupants tossed around. Trees were down and there were natural gas leaks. The extensive tree damage prevented an immediate rescue. There were four schools in the tornado's path, but the tornado skipped them."