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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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.