Deadly Tornado Tears Through Indiana

Fujita Scale: F3 (winds 158-206 mph)
Peak wind: 200 mph
Path length: 41 miles
Width: 400+ yards
Fatalities: 23
Injuries: At least 200 (50 critical)
Damage: 100+ buildings destroyed or severely damaged
Source: National Weather Service

In the early-morning hours of Nov. 6, 2005, severe thunderstorms produced a deadly tornado near Evansville, IN, that resulted in 23 fatalities, at least 200 injuries (approximately 50 critical) and 100-plus homes and other buildings being severely damaged or destroyed. It was Indiana’s deadliest tornado since the "Super Outbreak" on April 3, 1974, when a series of tornadoes killed 47 people and destroyed more than 2,000 homes.

Most of the deaths from the November storm occurred in the 350-unit, 50-acre Eastbrook Mobile Home Park. The remaining fatalities were in neighboring Warrick County. An estimated 17,000 to 27,000 homes were without power. It was the worst tornado-related disaster in the U.S. since May 3, 1999, when tornadoes devastated Oklahoma City and neighboring Moore, destroying more than 8,000 homes. It was part of an outburst of 74 tornadoes that struck parts of Oklahoma and southern Kansas, killing 48 people.

The F3 twister (with wind speeds of 158 to 206 mph) in Indiana started at approximately 1:50 A.M. and crossed the Vanderburgh-Warrick County line between 2:02 and 2:03 A.M. It touched down two miles north northwest of Smith Mills in Henderson County and moved northeast across the Ohio River and across Ellis Park. It stayed south of Interstate 164 in Evansville, flattening the mobile home park, and continued moving northeast into Warrick County through DeGonia Springs and south of Tennyson. It lifted 1½ miles south southwest of Gentryville in Spencer County. Peak winds were estimated at 200 mph. It was calculated that the tornado traveled at about 60 mph.

The twister’s path length was approximately 41 miles and its maximum width was 400-plus yards. It developed in a line of thunderstorms that rolled rapidly eastward across the Ohio Valley. The National Weather Service posted storm warnings for sections of northern Ohio. Tornado warnings were issued for parts of Kentucky and Indiana about 30 minutes before it struck.

Initial Response

Assistant Chief Dale Naylor of the Knight Township Fire Department was the incident commander. His department has 40 members and two stations, one of which was destroyed by the tornado. His jurisdiction covers 15.2 square miles in which there is a daytime population of 60,000 that is reduced at night to 20,000.

"The call was received minutes after the tornado had hit the complex," Naylor said. "The initial alarm consisted of a structure-fire assignment (three engines, one ladder, one rescue and a battalion chief)."

A special call for additional rescue companies was also requested. Eventually, more than 40 fire departments and other emergency agencies responded. Among those participating in mutual aid were the German Township Volunteer Fire Department, McCutchanville Volunteer Fire Department, Perry Township Volunteer Fire Department, Scott Township Volunteer Fire Department and elements from Posey County fire departments.

"The (warning) sirens were activated five minutes prior to the tornado hitting the complex (mobile home park)," Naylor said. "Both television and radio (stations) broadcast the warning. We also had an idea there was a tornado as we were getting radio reports from our personnel at the station located a mile from the trailer complex. The responding units also advised there was debris falling from the sky."

One hundred mobile homes in the park were destroyed and 125 others were severely damaged.

"The true scope of the destruction was not immediately known to the incident commanders due to the size of the complex and the magnitude of the destruction," Naylor said. "The first units on the scene had to triage patients and perform field treatment."

Naylor’s department had assisted with a tornado disaster in a neighboring community in the 1990s. The experience was valuable.

"Extrication of the patients from the debris piles had to be performed as well as marking structures that had to be searched," he said. "The use of fire service extrication equipment was not used in the initial response due to the inability to get equipment into the disaster area. Second-alarm companies were able to use heavy extrication equipment once some of the debris was moved. Portable lights and light towers from second-alarm companies proved to be very valuable. Treatment in the field could be assimilated to combat zone treatment and triage."

Dan McCarthy, the warning coordinator at the Storm Prediction Center in Norman, OK, said the tornado’s potency, its long path of destruction and the fact that it struck in the middle of the night were all unusual. At night, a tornado cannot be seen, he noted, adding that although most people think of tornadoes as spring events there is a second season from mid-October through November. People expect them to occur in the spring and in the afternoon and evening, not at 2 o’clock in the morning.

"Warning sirens are effective in most situations," Naylor said. "This was an unusual November night at 2 A.M. and people were sleeping. The warning sirens do not provide an adequate warning system at night because windows are closed and furnaces are on."

Biggest Challenges

Naylor said the biggest challenges to emergency responders were:

1. Transporting patients from the scene to the EMS staging area. Pickup trucks, police vehicles and small rescue vehicles were used.

2. There was an immediate need for heavy equipment such as cranes and clamshell-type excavators.

3. There were an overwhelming number of casualties in proportion to the number of rescuers involved in the initial response.

4. There was a need for lighting to find victims still buried in the debris.

5. Different agencies used different radio systems. Communication was difficult, if not impossible at times.

Search and Rescue

Most of the fatalities resulted from blows to the head of neck and other severe trauma. Several bodies were subsequently found in a four-acre retaining pond next to the mobile home park. Rather than completely draining the pond, members of an Army Reserve unit supervised the puncturing of the retaining walls to lower the water level. Chief Scott Watson of the Newburgh Volunteer Fire Department decided not to put his scuba and team into action.

"All the debris in the water reduced visibility to zero and we realized there was no chance of finding any survivors," Naylor said. Four bodies were subsequently found in the pond.

"The Knight Township Fire Department initiated the search-and-rescue operation," Naylor said. "We remained the lead agency throughout the entire search and rescue operation response. The initial rescue response was carried out by hand-to-hand digging and the use of small hand tools. When more equipment and personnel arrived on scene, heavy rescue equipment was then implemented. Most of the first-responding units reported rescuing between five and 10 people per rescuer."

Naylor continued, "We were involved, along with the Vanderburgh County Sheriff’s Department, in many of the cadaver recoveries. The VCSD was the lead agency in the recovery due to the nature of the fatalities. The Vanderburgh County Coroner’s Office also assisted in the cadaver-recovery operation. K-9 search and rescue dogs were employed within the first two hours of the incident and were utilized throughout the entire operation."

The survivors included a child who was found alive in a ditch after being trapped for 12 hours beneath debris and a 23-year-old man who fell asleep in his mobile home while watching TV before the tornado struck – the twister sucked him out of his home and deposited him in a nearby field where he subsequently woke up with just deep scratches to his face.

Lessons Learned

"This was not a normal event," Naylor said. "Mass-casualty planning and training can prepare your department to some degree. Nothing could have prepared us for the massive scale of destruction that we encountered. Our first-due station, which was located a mile from the scene, was destroyed by the tornado."

Naylor outlined additional lessons learned at this incident:

It is important to have heavy equipment resources at your disposal.

A mass-casualty incident "is not the time for turf wars," he said. "Plan and practice the incident command system, even with small events."

It is important to have a mutual aid system with chief-level officers who can assist with important duties such as staging, resources and personnel.

Be familiar with the resources that are available beyond neighboring counties. If possible, have a chief-level officer posted at the dispatch center during the incident. "We needed all of the aid we could get," Naylor said. "Calling for resources does not imply a sign of weakness." Also, he said, "“We had maps of the complex in our road books that were invaluable to mutual aid companies that were not familiar with the area."

Communication is always a problem in a major incident. Small details such as extra batteries are essential.

Utilize the Department of Homeland Security at the state level. "The Indiana state fire marshal and his staff were invaluable assets in securing resources," he said.

Conduct critiques to learn what worked and what can be improved. "We are always looking for ways to improve and learn from any incident," Naylor said.

Command Considerations

"We learned that in chaos, teamwork is essential for an incident of this magnitude to be successful," Naylor said. "It did not matter if you were a career or volunteer firefighter, everyone had the same goal in mind: rescue as many people as we could." The responders ranged from firefighters with two months of experience to several retired firefighters who showed up to help.

"People are alive today because of the selfless acts of many people that night," Naylor said. "There are stories and acts of heroism that we will never know that took place that morning. We could not be more proud of our firefighters and the entire firefighting community that answered our call for help."

Thanks to Assistant Chief Dale Naylor of the Knight Township Fire Department for his assistance in preparing this article.

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