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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"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."