Skip to: Content
Skip to: Site Navigation
Skip to: Search

In tornadoes' wake, neighbors came through

After deadly twisters tore through the South, help came quickly for rural Macon County, Tenn. residents.

(Page 2 of 2)

A ruptured gas line, which threw a spout of flame that could be seen 60 miles away in Nashville, made the rescue effort more dramatic and helped light the skies as rescuers worked through the night. Search-and-rescue teams continued the search in the hardest-hit areas of town, such as the neighborhoods of Williams, Galen Road, and Akersville Road.

Skip to next paragraph

For rescue workers, the grim task of finding casualties and injured residents was relieved by improbable moments. At one point, Sheriff Mark Gammons returned a call from Washington, only to find President Bush on the other end of the line. "He told us that everybody in the White House had us in their prayers," he says, chuckling. "I gave him my cellphone number and told him to call anytime."

Krueger says he was watching Hillary Clinton's offer of condolences to victims in Arkansas on TV when the power went off and the wind started howling. As he grabbed onto an old propane heater, the rest of the house vanished around him, and he suddenly found himself grabbing dirt, he says. "It's like God had me by the leg and was teaching me a lesson for all the trouble I've been into."

Most of the casualties were found following the first line of storms, but rescue workers then had to retreat as another system moved in. Out in the county, residents worked ceaselessly to find their neighbors.

Robert and Debra Foltz ran to their friends' brick house for shelter, and huddled in the bathroom, with the kids in the tub and the men covering the women. Right after the storm passed, the neighborhood was full of people, who were removing the debris of destroyed homes and searching for lost dogs.

"I can't believe we survived it," says Ms. Foltz.

The disaster had its miracles, too. A baby was found unharmed in a field in adjacent Sumner County, surrounded by dolls blown from nearby homes. A family of five was found in a basement in Macon County early Thursday morning.

"The so-called first responders aren't the first responders," says Carla Prater, assistant director of the Hazard Reduction and Recovery Center at Texas A&M University. "The first responders are always the victims and the people immediately in the area. There's a certain amount of time in every emergency event that people are on their own. Altruism is a natural reaction to disasters. It's something we should treasure."

The rapid official response in Tennessee and other storm-struck areas appears to have been the result of new disaster-response training and organization philosophies that have come into play following 9/11 and hurricane Katrina, says disaster expert Lee Clarke, a Rutgers University professor. "Some places did not have sirens or much planning, but in a number of places they did. And it seems to have mattered in how quickly people got out of the way, got to low ground, and also in regard to official responders."