Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Volunteer Heroes
Charge Into Chaos

As dusk approached Bertie County on Saturday, April 16th, the news on the TV was telling about a huge storm that was moving quickly across the landscape of north eastern NC. Few could imagine the chaos and devastation that was about to change the lives of so many.

As the monster Askewville-Colerain tornado arrived, what happened reminds me of the famous story about the two kinds of people in the world. When the guns of war start, some run towards the sound of danger and some run away. We have right here among our neighbors a great number of the first kind. True heroes.

One of the volunteers, who place their own lives in jeopardy to defend us, is Askewville Fire Chief Darrell Hoggard. He was at home taking a shower when he first heard a tornado hit less than a half mile from his house. Mike Baker, another volunteer fireman, reached Darrell on his cell phone and told him of serious damage to Jakes Trailer Court nearby. Darrell quickly dressed and headed out calling other volunteers on the way, but Darrell could not even make that short distance directly as the tornado had left roads impassable with debris and fallen trees. It was chaos. So he and his fellow volunteers found a way around the obstacles so they could help their neighbors who were in trouble. The roads had to be cleared so they could get emergency vehicles through. So the volunteers started clearing.

A short time later several miles away, Perrytown Fire Chief Bud Lee was sitting at the dinner table with his wife Alice, finishing their evening meal. He had heard the tornado warning so he was listening in on the local 2-way emergency radio, just in case. Colerain Volunteer fireman Woody Pierce was driving and came across the tornado devastation on Morris Ford Road, near Whites Cross Road. He reported the damage to dispatch and told them they needed to get the Perrytown volunteers to go there. Bud heard the report. He and his fellow volunteers scrambled out of their homes and headed out towards the 'sound of danger'. Just as Darrell discovered in Askweville, the Perrytown volunteers found it was not easy to get to the place where people needed them. The tornado had blocked all the roads in the immediate area with huge fallen trees and debris. So they started moving the debris and the trees. Some had brought their power saws while others rushed home to get theirs, along with tractors that could drag large logs. The obstacles and chaos would not deter them.

A few minutes later, Colerain Fire Chief Milton Felton was watching TV with his wife Mary and was actually close enough to see the tornado out his window as it kept moving north. Milton got in his truck and headed out to Glovers Road where it appeared the tornado had been when he saw it, calling for other volunteers to join him. Just as the Askewville and Perrytown volunteers had found, the roads near the tornado damage were impassable. So the volunteers started sawing the trees into manageable pieces so they could clear the roads to get by. Milton reported the damage to Bertie County dispatch and asked for help. It was chaos there too.

On the other side of the tornado damage from Milton, Trap Fire Chief Mike Harrell was home, sitting quietly listening to the pager. When the call for help was relayed, another Volunteer, Brad Brown, heard the call and contacted Mike that they had been dispatched to Glovers Road to assist Colerain. Unknown to either of them, worse damage blocked their way and they could not get there. The tornado had leveled several homes at the corner of Nowell Farm Road and NC 42, between Trap and Colerain. They couldn't get through to Glovers Road, so they dug in and started clearing the obstacles where they found them.

Everywhere the volunteers were dealing with chaos. New calls of death and destruction were arriving minute by minute. The 2-way radio never stopped. Kenny Perry set up communications at the Instant Command Center to help organize efforts and direct resources where they were needed. Each of the groups of volunteers attacked the problems in the areas they found them as resources arrived.

It was the start of a truly long and horrific night which would have been much much worse except for all these courageous volunteers. Other volunteers arrived, including a number of local nurses who simply drove in to the sites to help. Few of these volunteers got to bed until nearly daybreak, and even then only because they needed to recharge and come back to the fight when it was light. Sunday was going to be a long long day.

During that night, these volunteers saved the lives of a number of our neighbors. Digging through buildings that had been reduced to rubble, they found the injured and got them out to where the nurses could tend them and ambulances could take them away along roads that were only passable because of their earlier efforts. It was dangerous work and a number of the volunteers were hurt during the searches. It was hard manual labor under dangerous stressful conditions in total darkness. I thank God that there are so many in our midst who are willing to 'run to the sound of danger.'

In the following days, we have heard of aid from a number of groups who deserve recognition. The first teams on site were aided by a number of other groups in our county and beyond. The people I spoke to constantly mentioned the aid of Windsor, Bear Grass, Blue Jay, Jamesville and Williamston volunteers who came to help out without being asked. Everyone was thankful to the Sheriff's department who they felt did a great job. The Forest Service has been amazingly helpful with both people and tools.

The Baptist Men have performed awesome work, constantly preparing meals for people whose lives have been disrupted. The Red Cross has helped out with deliveries of some of the meals.

On Sunday morning, the fight continued, as it would for several days. These brave men and women, our neighbors, had to deal not just with chaos but with some truly gruesome chores. Most people do not realize how the debris of a tornado can cut off limbs or puncture as the powerful forces suck things into the air and then hurl them sideways into people.

Cars were ripped apart as they were carried up to a hundred yards in places. Entire homes, with people inside were lifted and smashed to the ground a hundred yards away. At least one aluminum barn was lifted off the ground and as recently as yesterday had still not been found. Where it was taken is simply unknown. Chaos.

We owe these volunteers a lot. Even if this particular disaster did not affect some of us directly this time, next time it might!

To these great people, Thank You.

This article was published in the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald and can be found here.



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