As the eerie orange glow of a massive pipeline fire lit up the storm-torn skies, James Krueger stumbled into a wasteland.
Flashlights pierced the night, people yelled for help, dogs yapped, and four-wheel-drive utility vehicles appeared on the hillside. Pierced and battered, but very much alive, Mr. Krueger was quickly picked up by a neighbor looking for survivors and taken to the hospital.
"I yelled for help and it came," he says.
The massive tornado that hit rural Macon County, Tenn., at 10:26 p.m. Tuesday night claimed at least 13 lives, injured 68, and destroyed 200 homes and four churches. But the massive twister reminded Krueger and hundreds of others how quickly help can come in the darkest hour – and sometimes in unlikely forms.
As officials wrapped up search-and-rescue missions – a family of five was found at 2 a.m. Thursday, 28 hours after the storm – stories of heroism and perseverance began percolating through the town of Lafayette (pop. 4,238), a part of which the mile-wide tornado hit on its 15-mile journey across the Cumberland plateau.
There were the men who jumped into their four-wheel-drive vehicles to carry injured adults and crying children to main roads. There were teams of men with chain saws clearing roads and clambering through debris. And there were the 300 or so emergency personnel, many of them hit by the storm themselves, who responded to the vast disaster scene, oftentimes within 20 minutes.
"They were there so fast," says Steve Gutierrez, a local builder. "A lot of these people live right here in town, and the response was immense."
Concern drove many rescued residents out of shelters in search of loved ones. Creecie Morgan set out on foot to look for her aunt in a hard-hit area of the county seven miles away. "Finally, Pastor Dan came by and said, 'Get in the car. You're not walking all that way,' " she recalls.
The tornado was the most destructive to hit Tennessee in 33 years, with most of the damage coming here in Macon County, a hilly stretch on the Kentucky border, dotted with red barns, brick homes, and trailer parks. President Bush was expected to visit on Thursday. In all, the system of storms claimed 55 lives and destroyed property across Arkansas, Mississippi, Tennessee, Kentucky, and Alabama.
"People were running around, trying to find neighbors, cutting trees, and digging in rubble," says Freddie Fuqua, a senior Lafayette firefighter.
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.
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."