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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Massive trauma claimed the lives of three people. Casualties were transported by fire truck and EMS vehicles. No dogs (sniffer or cadaver) were used in the operation. There were about eight ambulances on the scene (one came from Birmingham), six rescue trucks plus four trucks from Hale County and three from Bibb County. "We had personnel on the scene until 9 P.M. that night," Horst said.

Two people were missing and a decision was made to call off the search and resume it at first light. One of those individuals subsequently died and the other was found the next morning. While all this was happening, the temperature dropped rapidly. Within 12 to 18 hours, it bottomed out at 25 degrees. The collective misery experienced by rescuers and survivors was compounded by a light dusting of snow. The wind-chill factor made it feel close to zero degrees.

Lessons Learned

In terms of lessons learned, Horst said, the public should "take warnings seriously and follow drills and procedures."

"As for the department," he added, "we had communications problems. It was extremely difficult to get cellular access on that end of town. The towers had no power. The system got overloaded on the common fireground frequency used for mass casualties. However, most of the seriously injured were transported within 45 minutes. We also failed to realize the significance of Bear Creek, but the volunteer fire department handled it well.

"We're making changes in our communication procedures and protocol. We're considering going with a radio/ telephone unit that has a more common talk group. The incident management systems worked well. (In retrospect) we stayed too close to the incident. We didn't have a staging officer and that was probably a mistake."

Chief Billy Doss of the Duncanville Volunteer Fire Department, five miles south-southeast of Tuscaloosa, also had ample warning - 18 minutes.

"The South Fork Station was built as an underground shelter for the South Fork Mobile Home Park," Doss said. "It's 60 feet deep by 120 feet long and has five bay doors, an office, two full baths, a full kitchen and upstairs we have a bunk room and a training room. The walls are concrete blocks filled with concrete, backfilled with dirt on two sides and the back metal room has skylights.

"The station was designated for use as a storm shelter by the previous (Duncanville fire) chief, who was also the owner of the South Fork Mobile Home Park. The station is used by civilians in the event of an emergency. When the warning went out, we opened the shelter." The shelter quickly filled up with people. There was no loss of life at the South Fork Mobile Home Park.

"We have two sirens and they sounded at 12:36," Doss continued. "One is on the station on U.S. Highway 82 and State Highway 69 south. When we received the alarm, we went through the mobile home park with our sirens blasting. The smallest station, Turnio Seed Station, is on Bear Creek Road. All morning, it had been warmer than usual. There was a little rain before the storm.

"The tornado hit at 12:54. We had a pumper in the South Fork Mobile Home Park at the time. The storm came from the south by southwest and crossed over State Highway 69 South, went across Bear Creek Road and through the Bear Creek Mobile Home Park. The park is 12 years old and used to be farm land. The ground it sits on is slightly elevated.

"We responded with two pumpers, two service trucks and POVs (personally owned vehicles) to check on injuries and clear roads. We set up a command center within 30 minutes. Ten other fire departments were on the scene to help. The first crew went to Highway 82 East and found two elderly people slightly injured in a house. At this time, our other apparatus went to Bear Creek Mobile Home Park.

"I came from the west side. We set up our command center on the west side of the mobile home park. At this time, the news was out and the Tuscaloosa Police Department responded. EMS put out a request for medical personnel and a triage center was established. Victims were transported by ambulance to the Regional Medical Center in Tuscaloosa and the Northport Medical Center. The Mount Olive Volunteer Fire Department transported four people. University Hospital in Birmingham also treated some of the worst injured victims.