On The Job - Tennessee

Michael Garlock reports on a fire station that took a direct hit from a tornado, and how its crew conducted search and rescue operations in unbelievable conditions.


JACKSON FIRE DEPARTMENT Chief Owen S. Collins Personnel: 166 career firefighters Apparatus: 10 pumpers, three aerials, one hazmat unit, one tanker Population: 50,000 Area: 49 square miles Located 80 miles east of Memphis and 120 miles west of Nashville, the small Tennessee community...


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JACKSON FIRE DEPARTMENT
Chief Owen S. Collins
Personnel: 166 career firefighters
Apparatus: 10 pumpers, three aerials, one hazmat unit, one tanker
Population: 50,000
Area: 49 square miles

Located 80 miles east of Memphis and 120 miles west of Nashville, the small Tennessee community of Bemis is just about in the middle of the atmospheric interstate known euphemistically as "tornado alley." On Jan. 17, 1999, a large weather system created by the highly unusual collision of cold northern and western winter air bulging downward from Canada and warm southern and eastern tropical air flowing up from the South spawned a series of deadly tornados that rampaged across western Arkansas and eastern Tennessee. Historically tornados rarely occur in the South during the winter months - but when they do, they are often very powerful.

Thirty-one tornadoes touched down in Tennessee, Arkansas and Mississippi on Jan. 17. On Jan. 21 and 22, another 55 twisters tore across large portions of the South. One of them made a direct hit on Jackson Fire Station 4, located in the small suburban community of Bemis.

Jackson is a city of 50,000 people in Madison County. The four-square-mile suburb of Bemis, with a population of 5,000, is protected by Station 4, staffed by 21 career firefighters under the command of two captains. The crews staff two engines. It is one of six Jackson Fire Department stations.

Main access to the Jackson area is via State Road 45, a four-lane hardtop that runs north/south. There are several narrower state roads that spiderweb outward from Jackson's hub in all directions. The surrounding countryside is characterized by gently rolling hills on which there are farms that are given to cotton, corn, soybeans and beef cattle. Station 4 is located on State Road 45.

The only advance warning of the impending twisters was given by the local TV weather channel. Tornados had been sighted in Mercer, a farming community 15 miles west of Bemis. According to the National Weather Service, one tornado packing winds of up to 206 mph had touched down just before 6 P.M., doing considerable damage to a regional airport, an Air National Guard hangar and several communities.

Captain Jerry Laster was on duty in Station 4 at the time the tornado hit. He was asked whether the crew received any warning of the twister.

"We never did," he replied. "An alarm activated by a power failure went off at 6:15 P.M. at a grocery store called the Marketplace, half a mile up on State Road 45. The rain was coming down in sheets along with a lot of hail. After we got to the store and checked everything out, I called District Chief (Jimmy) Stegall and informed him that everything was OK." After doing that, the crew started to head back to the station. As it subsequently turned out, the false alarm probably saved their lives.

"At 6:18, the driver on our second end pumper saw the funnel," Laster continued. "The station took a direct hit three minutes after we left the station. Our average response time is four minutes. We realized later that the rain and hail suddenly stopped at 6:16 and began again at 6:21. Sunset was at approximately 5:20, so it was dark when the tornado hit."

One firefighter said the rain was hitting his face from one direction while the wind was blowing his cap from the opposite way - typical tornado wind behavior. Just before it hit the station, the tornado was illuminated by a flash of lightning. Struck by the wind, the truck was pushed to the side of the road.

The tornado, rated at F4 with a wind speed of 240 mph, had apparently sucked up all of the surrounding water within range of its vortex, kept it there by centrifugal force, then dumped it. A good portion of it landed on the station.

"Nobody was in the station when the tornado hit," Laster said.

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