Storm hits close to home for emergency responders
May 12, 2011
- I'm here to tell you that during this thing we lost phones, we lost contact, but we didn't lose having the people we needed.
- "Even though we had services down, we still had a public there that needed assistance.
- "I managed to get out of the water and climb over several downed trees to get to the roadway," Renew said.
- "As a first responder, when something like this happens you've got this feeling inside, 'I've got to do something,'" Herbster said.
REDSTONE ARSENAL, Ala.--For the firefighters, law enforcement and others that make up the Directorate of Emergency Services, there was no second thought about returning to work in the days following the April 27 storms - it was simply the call to duty.
"This is one team, one fight," Redstone police chief Art Riley said. "It's times like these that are the true test of the organization. You wonder whether everything you have in place, your recall, your people, your training, whether those things are going to come through for you. I'm here to tell you that during this thing we lost phones, we lost contact, but we didn't lose having the people we needed to have here doing the job on Redstone Arsenal. Our people were spot on. They were here before we even tried to call them, and that's a true testament to this organization.
"We had some who lost homes, we had some who had damage to homes. All of us lost power, but everyone showed up for work. We have a mission and we're here to do that."
While the rest of Alabama cleaned up from the storms and coped with the massive power outage, Directorate of Emergency Services worked extra hours and extra missions not only to ensure the Arsenal remained a safe and secure place, but that Team Redstone also met the overwhelming needs of the Arsenal family. Throughout the power outage there was no loss of services, and no major incidents that DES was not able to respond to and take care of on its own.
"There was a big shift in how we handled business during this period," said Jack Rush, kennel master of the military dog working branch. "Even though we had services down, we still had a public there that needed assistance. Every effort was made to assist the public."
In the days that followed the storm, in addition to their usual duties, DES employees fielded phone calls from people who lost their homes and others who had questions on what parts of the installation were open, provided additional patrols, kept the peace at the Post Exchange and the Shoppette as customers came to the Arsenal for generators, gas and other basic essentials, and prepared to help the outside community in the event they were called upon.
"Because of the power outage we had catastrophic systems failure in our intruder detection system," said Kevin Dykema, chief of the Physical Security Division. "We had to increase security patrols, call people in that should've been home taking care of their families and issues to come and take care of our mission requirements."
"It's an increased mission requirement for us from a standpoint of we have things out here on the Arsenal that need to be secured. They need to be checked on," Riley said.
That checklist extended to DES employees who were severely impacted by the storms, as co-workers went out to check up on each other and help wherever they could.
Redstone police Lt. Kenny Renew was monitoring the weather situation April 27 from the Redstone police desk when the tornado struck his community in Harvest. Contacting his wife Pha, he was able to determine his family was OK, but physically getting to his home was not as easy.
"I left work and was unable to drive anywhere near my house," said Renew, who was forced to stop on Lockhart Road, two miles from his home, due to debris blocking the road. "Lockhart Road was devastated. I was wearing my duty uniform and people were coming to me for help. The only help I could give those people was to write down the location of the injured in my notebook and promise that I would try to get help to them."
It was only moments later that Renew needed help himself, after a decision to walk through the woods to get around a pile of debris left him chest high in water in a ditch.
"I managed to get out of the water and climb over several downed trees to get to the roadway," Renew said. "As I sat in the roadway trying to catch my breath, a thought went through my mind that I didn't need to become a casualty myself."
Lucky for Renew, an EMT and Harvest firefighter were nearby to help get him back on dry land. Eventually he was able to reach his home, only to discover a hole where his chimney was supposed to be, and the home behind his leveled, where Katie Cornwell, 15, lay lifeless in the debris of her grandparents' home. Working to save her grandfather, Harold Fitzgerald, Renew and his son Kevin, and daughter-in-law Beatriz, transported the 65-year-old to the roadway in the bed of an old pickup truck, performing rescue breathing until HEMSI was able to reach them on foot, and neighbors were able to carry him a quarter mile to the Railroad Bed Road intersection. Fitzgerald later died at Huntsville Hospital.
"I only wish I knew all the names of the people who helped Harold's family," Renew said. "They are all heroes."
DES workers are quick to point out that it is the men and women like those Renew encountered in his own backyard that are the heroes, not them.
"Within our work force, as you talk to folks you'll find a lot of those folks will think what they did wasn't really all that extraordinary," said Bobby York with the Special Reaction Team. "It's just one of those things that goes along with the job. We don't look at it as being anything out of the ordinary. It's what we do."
The instinct to serve was hard to ignore for Ed Herbster, a firefighter who spent his free time over the past two weeks helping the search and rescue and recovery efforts in Harvest, Phil Campbell, Hackleburg, Mount Hope and Hatton. Many of those that work within DES aided in the community recovery efforts in their off hours.
"As a first responder, when something like this happens you've got this feeling inside, 'I've got to do something,'" Herbster said. "That's what we rely on and act on."
The destruction was so bad in Hackleburg that Herbster had to rappel from a helicopter just to reach the areas that needed search and rescue. The images he saw as he reached out to others - homes destroyed, a car balancing on top of a telephone pole - remain with him forever. While the damage has not been the worst thing the firefighters and law enforcement have responded to in their careers, DES workers agree it has certainly been the most widespread.
"I've heard and seen so many incredible things," Herbster said. "It's just unreal, the damage."