On The Job - Tennessee

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.

That is, no firefighters were in the station. Several things happened almost at once. Just as the seven-man fire crew started to slowly return to quarters, the tornado hit the station. At about the same time, a man driving home from a horse show had his car picked up by the tornado. The vehicle was deposited in the parking lot and, its accelerator down the floor, proceeded to barrel into the engine bays - which the engines had vacated just minutes before. Dents in the car's interior roof caused by repeated contact with the man's head attested to the tornado's force as it tried to suck him out of his vehicle (fortunately, he was wearing a seatbelt). At the time, Laster had no way of knowing the crew had an unexpected guest.

"We stopped our truck and I called District Chief Stegall for assistance," he said. "Normally Madison County provides us with mutual aid in the form of pumpers; they stand by the station and give us manpower. The chief was monitoring Madison County and he knew they had their hands full, so we were basically on our own."

And without a station, which was severely damaged and temporarily occupied by a car and its dazed driver and filled with six inches of debris. It has since been condemned by city engineers due to a badly cracked roof. All the windows in the living quarters were blown out, as were the tall glass panels that surrounded the engine room. Some of the glass was in the 5,000-square-foot station while more shards were outside, indicating that an implosion took place, followed by an explosion. About 150 pine trees around the station were blown down, adding to the litter.

After the high winds wreaked havoc on the roof, the tornado released all the water it was holding. That caused additional damage as chairs in the radio room were sucked out into the front yard.

"If we had been in the station (at the time the tornado hit), we would have been severely injured," Laster said. Seven private vehicles belonging to firefighters in addition to the civilian's car were totaled. Consistent with the quirky things tornadoes often do, the station's dinner table and the many objects on it such as plates and glasses were not disturbed - but all of the firefighters' shoes were blown away. Firefighters estimated that the tornado lingered for between 10 and 15 seconds in the immediate area.

The George A. Smith & Sons Funeral Home, 50 feet south of the fire station, was demolished as was an all-metal commercial building located 50 feet to the north.

"You couldn't recognize the location," Laster said. Everything had changed. There's a strip mall, Southgate Shopping Center, about 100 yards across the street (State Road 45) that has about 10 businesses in it - an Auto Zone, Dollar General, Fred's Discount Store, beauty shop, stores like that. Most of the buildings were gone and there were people trapped in the rubble. Auto Zone's steel girders were all twisted. Fortunately, it was a Sunday and there weren't too many people at the mall; otherwise, it would have been a lot worse."

South Side High School, a quarter mile southeast of the station, also received heavy damage to its new stadium and half of its fleet of buses was damaged.

Most of the homes in Bemis are older, wood-frame structures, while the commercial buildings in strip malls and shopping centers are primarily of concrete blocks. Some homes were behind the strip mall.

"We immediately initiated a search and rescue operation," Laster said. "The smell of natural gas was heavy in the air, power lines were down in the parking lot and trees had been blown everywhere. The winds had forced an 18-wheeler off the road along with numerous other vehicles. One car was blown under a 20-foot-high bridge. After we shut off gas meters (at one point using a broom handle to bottle up a line), we divided up into two teams. One three-man team searched the strip mall, a second team did the vehicles and we sent one firefighter back to what was left of the station. We didn't find anyone in the vehicles.

"We established a command post half a mile north from the station in the Bemis Square Shopping Center, a commercial location. There was a lot of debris around, which we helped remove. We also did some tunneling. It was dark and wet. People suffered numerous injuries such as cuts, bruises, head trauma and broken bones, just about everything you can think of. Four people died in the immediate area. Cadaver dogs were brought in the next day."

Although some headlights were used, handlights provided most of the illumination. Power was not restored until 11 A.M. on Jan. 21. Communications were hampered by the damaged cellular telephone tower, which was without power for three hours.

The search and rescue operation, conducted in poor light at best, was made even more dangerous by numerous live wires and gas mains, some of which had been shut off or capped by imaginative improvisation. A spark could have been catastrophic.

Between 30 and 35 people were injured. They were taken by ambulance to Jackson-Madison County General Hospital and Methodist Regency Hospital. Approximately 50 houses and 20 commercial buildings went down. Although they received help from Civil Defense members, the police department and some volunteers, to a great extent the seven members of the Bemis fire crew were on their own.

The Orchard Hill subdivision, located in Madison County, lost 60 of its 90 expensive brick homes. Two people were killed there. Fifteen other Madison County fire stations sustained varying levels of damage from tornados.

The search and rescue operation lasted until 3 A.M. Off-duty personnel reported for work, and the Jackson County Fire Department provided Engine 12 and Snorkel 1. Although their station was severely damaged, the Bemis fire crew continued to function and fulfill its primary mission.

"The fire station never went down," Laster said. "We kept on providing service to the people in our area. My firefighters did an excellent job in the search and rescue. They never considered the risk of collapsed walls, downed electric lines, glass, nails and other debris. Assistant Chief (Ray) Puckett and Jackson Fire Chief (Owen) Collins were also on the scene assisting us. At 3 A.M., we moved the command post to our station. Local businesses helped us out with food."

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