On The Job - Alabama: Killer Tornado Rakes Tuscaloosa Area

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

Chief Billy Doss
Personnel: 50 volunteers
Apparatus: Five engines, six tankers, four service vehicles used for first response
Population: 8,000

On Dec. 16, 2000, western Alabama was ripped by a band of twisters that killed 12 people and injured upwards of 75. Hardest hit was the Tuscaloosa area, where 11 of the fatalities occurred. As many as 400 homes and businesses were damaged or destroyed.

The twister also touched down in three other locations, leveling houses and killing one person in Geneva, at the southern edge of the state. Etowah, Limestone and St. Clair counties in the north and southeastern Dale, Henry and Houston counties also sustained structure damage.

The worst devastation was in the Englewood, Hillcrest Meadows and Hinton Place sections of Tuscaloosa and the Bear Creek Mobile Home Park in Duncanville, just south of Tuscaloosa, where most of the victims were found. Mobile homes were reduced to dismembered heaps of barely recognizable rubbish.

The tornado, rated at F-4 (wind speed 207-260 mph) on the Fujita Scale, was spawned by a supercell thunderstorm that originated in Mississippi. The 12 fatalities moved Alabama into unenviable third place nationwide in total tornado deaths since 1950. Only Texas and Mississippi rank higher. This particular tornado has the distinction of being the strongest one recorded in December in Alabama since 1950. It was the worst to hit Tuscaloosa, home of the University of Alabama, since 1932, when a twister killed more than 100 people.

The Geneva County twister hit shortly after 10:30 A.M. Geneva borders the Florida Panhandle and one person died, eight people were injured, two of them severely, and 20 homes were damaged. The same tornado also damaged a textile mill and destroyed a peanut mill in neighboring Dale County.

At 12:05 P.M., the National Weather Service in Birmingham reported 0.75-inch hail and penny-size hail near Hamilton in Marion County. At 12:30, an F-1 (74-95 mph) tornado touched down for one minute in southwest Limestone County, three miles south of Coxey in the northern part of the state. There were no reported injuries. The track was a half-mile long by about 40 yards wide. Ten minutes later, the supercell generated a second twister, rated F-2 (96-110 mph), that touched down five miles west-northwest of Athens, just south of O'Neal in the north central part of the state. Ominously, its track was longer, 4.8 miles, and wider, 60 yards. The tornado dissipated at 12:44.

Athens and Coxey are 160 miles north of Tuscaloosa; Geneva lies 230 miles to the south-southeast. While the citizens of Tuscaloosa and Duncanville were enjoying unseasonably warm weather - it was a balmy and welcome 75 degrees - their neighbors to the north and south were getting plastered by a series of tornadoes that inexplicably hit within rapid succession in far-flung reaches of the state.

"This storm was different because the tornado moved at 60 mph," John Oldshue, a meteorologist at WJSU-TV in Tuscaloosa, explained. "Tornadoes typically move at 30 mph. We provided wall-to-wall coverage. We have a tower cam that provides live, real-time images."

Huge Supercell

Although there were several different twisters, all of them were the result of one parent storm that moved in a northeasterly direction. The supercell was so large that is spawned six different tornadoes over a period of six hours and 10 minutes. The residents of Englewood, Hillcrest Meadows and Hinton Place and the Bear Creek Mobile Home Park were essentially being bracketed by potentially lethal tornadoes.

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."

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.

"We had multiple ambulances on the scene. A local resident just happened to have a backhoe and he was instrumental in clearing the roads that were clogged with fallen trees and other debris. The injured consisted primarily of multiple abrasions, cuts, bruises and broken bones. The fatalities were due to massive trauma. Although the mobile homes were anchored, the anchors were pulled up by the force of the tornado.

"A temporary morgue was set up in a field. Our men did a search and rescue and body recovery. No dogs, either cadaver or sniffer, were used. There was plenty of daylight. The local gas company shut off numerous gas leaks. There were also water leaks. The operation lasted until 7:30 P.M. By then, it was too dark to continue. At six o'clock the following morning, we found the body of a 15-month-old boy.

"The Tuscaloosa City Police Department and Tuscaloosa County Sheriff's Department secured an area where they set up a mobile command center.

"The response from the Duncanville Volunteer Fire Department was unbelievable. Within 30 minutes, we had approximately 100 volunteer firefighters from other departments and they stayed until the search was called off Saturday night. Most returned at 6 o'clock Sunday morning. The temperature had dropped into the teens with snow flurries. They continued to do their job until they were sure all the victims were located and all the people were out of their mobile homes. All the other people went back to their departments and Duncanville (firefighters) helped with the cleaning of roads and debris."

Firefighter Kim Booth, a nine-year veteran of the Duncanville Volunteer Fire Department, was uncomfortably close to the twister when it touched down.

Too Close For Comfort

"I came up Highway 82 and saw the tornado cross the (four-lane) highway," Booth said. "I was in the service truck with Jeff Sullivan. This was a quarter of a mile behind the Bear Creek Mobile Home Park. We were less than a half a mile from the tornado. There was a lot of wind, trees were down on the highway, a full-sized pickup truck was spinning around like a child's toy.

"We stopped until the tornado got through and then we started to search at a smaller mobile home park near the Country Mart Store. We treated two wounded, an elderly male and female, and then we proceeded to Bear Creek Mobile Home Park.

"Most of the people were out. It was a nice day, between 70 degrees and 75 degrees. We had an idea something was going to happen because it was too hot and a cold front was coming through. If the tornado had hit at night, it would have been a lot worse.

"People were in shock. Many had lacerations. Some (people) were trapped and we got them out with the chain saws. We cut trees off houses and trees off people. There was lots of destruction. The remote TV cam was two miles away. We worked until dark Saturday night. Everybody was accounted for except for the child.

"There were about 150 people in the (Bear Creek) park at the time. It's a family neighborhood. It was hard to tell how big it was because there was so much rain and debris. Before the tornado hit, there was quite a bit of lightning popping around. Bear Creek Mobile Home Park had good-sized ditches that are supposed to be used in the event of a tornado."

Booth, also a first responder, continued, "We had ambulances from the city of Birmingham, the surrounding counties and I saw one from Mississippi. I guess there were around 30. I saw mobile home frames wrapped around trees. We didn't do any tunneling or shoring because the mobile homes had been reduced to debris three feet by three feet. I crawled through what was left of a mobile home and found a baby doll. It was so lifelike I thought it was a person. A little girl later told me she screamed just before she was blown out of a window in her mobile home.

"Most of the mobile homes were scattered across the field that comprises the park. We had to crawl through at least 20 mobile homes. There are two ravines in the park and mobile homes were busted up in them."

An emergency room was set up in a house on Old Marion Road, about a half mile from Bear Creek Mobile Home Park.

"The windows were all blown out, but we covered them with plywood and used generators for power," Booth said. "Between 20 and 25 doctors from Emergy Care set up a hospital there. There were also between 20 and 25 RNs who came in. People got banged up and taken care of. Sunday morning we had a dusting of snow."

Booth lives in the Bear Creek Mobile Home Park. His home was damaged, but livable. He also said, "Most of the wounded didn't know the tornado was coming. People don't pay attention to the sirens and horns. We had plenty of warning, 17 to 18 minutes. I don't know why people don't pay attention." He said weather-alert radios costing about $30 each hook into the National Weather Service and sound only when there's an alert.

"We learned quite a bit," Booth said. "We never had to deal with a situation like this before. We learned how to set up equipment and be better prepared. We could have used more chain saws, for example. You never really have enough of them. We also could have used more lights at night.

"We've been pushing to get a centralized dispatch system for Tuscaloosa County because then everybody would be on the same page. It would make things run smoother. Now it's all separate."

Don Hartley of the Tuscaloosa County Emergency Management Agency agreed that the weather-alert radios would have helped.

"They're programmed for specific codes," Hartley said. "People seem to be either complacent, fatalistic, indifferent or they think it will always happen to someone else. People also have the mistaken belief that they will hear the outdoor warning sirens, but the noise a tornado makes can mask the sirens, even though there are 41 sirens in the city and county of Tuscaloosa.

"We're the main planning agency for the county. It's our job to increase pubic awareness. We're the chief warning and recovery agency. The tornado watch was issued at 11 A.M. Spotters were sent out into the field. We had an initial problem with communications. There were a limited number of channels and a large number of apparatus responding. We should re-duce the communications.

"We have mutual aid agreements with all adjacent counties, including Jefferson, Hales, Bibb, Green, Pickens, Walker and Fayette counties. There were six fatalities at Bear Creek Mobile Home Park, one in Geneva, two on U.S. Highway 69, two fatalities from undetermined locations were taken to a mortuary and one fatality was DOA at the local hospital." (It was later determined the two fatalities from undetermined locations and the one DOA were from Oors Trailer Park.)

"There's been a real interest in tornado shelters and safe rooms developed by Texas Tech for NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration). A bank next to the Winn Dixie in Hinton Place was hit by a tornado. The bank was demolished, but the vault was completely intact. A vault is essentially a safe room."

Cleaning Up

The unseasonable warmth and proximity to Christmas had caused many people to leave their homes. Once outdoors or enroute to a destination, presumably they might have had a better chance of hearing warning sirens or horns. Hartley said, "Lots of people were Christmas shopping and because of that fatalities were down."

This is probably true. However, tornadoes are extremely capricious, as rescuers and victims will attest. Whether an individual is safer in a car or a shopping mall is to a great extent a matter of luck. Reduction or centralization of communication channels is essential. Cluttered channels often produce needless, sometimes redundant chatter and confusion. Tornadoes routinely blow down street signs and clog roads with debris, making them impassible. Mutual aid, frequently unfamiliar with local topography, can be seriously compromised by an inability to find correct streets or specific addresses.

An abundance of tools such as chain saws, axes and lights are a definite plus. Unit strength and effectiveness can often be greatly enhanced by a well-led, well-intended and well-equipped citizenry.

Weather-alert radios are only beneficial insofar as people pay attention to them. Shelters, no matter how strong, are good only if people use them. Ditches, easy and inexpensive to make, maintain and disguise are probably the most effective means of saving lives.

Dissemination of vital, potentially life-saving information is a continuous, often frustrating endeavor. Hartley said Emergency Management has about a six-month window after a catastrophic event in which to grab people's attention. In the end, though, all that emergency management and fire departments - both paid and volunteer can do is to go and clean up the mess.

Michael Garlock is a Florida- and New York-based freelance writer specializing in fire service response to major storms.