Less than 24 hours after Western Kentuckians began digging through the rubble left behind by tornadoes that ripped a path of destruction for hundreds of miles last weekend, firefighters from Winchester and Clark County were on the ground to help in those communities.
Around 3 a.m. Sunday, three from the Winchester Fire Department — Chief Chris Whiteley, Major Matthew Blose, and Firefighter Heith Castle — left for Mayfield in Graves County to do search and rescue at a candle factory that had been flattened by a powerful EF‑4 tornado while 110 employees were working. Eight lost their lives.
Then at 3 a.m. Monday, a team of four, including Lt. Nick Riggs and Firefighter Matt Moses from Winchester and Battalion Chief Will Jordan and Firefighter James Keesee from the Clark County Fire Department, left for Graves County and then Marshall County for hazard mitigation efforts in a lakefront neighborhood in Grand Rivers.
As late as as Thursday, Clark County Emergency Services Director Steve Asbury, who is also the county fire chief, was working at the statewide emergency operations center in Frankfort helping to plan and coördinate the search and rescue operations.
“Chris Whiteley came back and described it as being in a war zone,” Asbury said. “The Graves County Courthouse is in shambles.”
“There was widespread destruction across several states,” he said.
Asbury said the Kentucky Emergency Management Agency tracked five separate tornado paths, including two major ones. The one that went through Mayfield started west of the Mississippi River and stayed on the ground for more than 200 miles.
Asbury said firefighters were sent from Clark County in response to a request by the state fire commission for search and rescue teams from across the state.
“We have qualified personnel in our department” to do that kind of work, so they joined others in the operations, he said.
Riggs said the first group from Winchester that was sent to the candle factory was attached to the Bluegrass Emergency Response Team.
The group he was part of, which went the next day, was originally sent to Graves County but was moved to Grand Rivers in Marshall County, where they worked with firefighters from Nicholasville and stayed at the Grand Lakes Fire and Rescue firehouse about five miles north of Benton.
“We went to a lakefront community where about 200 houses were completely destroyed,” Riggs said. “We went to each house to do a perimeter search of each property looking for anything hazardous — mostly propane tanks.”
Also, all the houses were heated by natural gas, so they went from house to house looking for gas meters to shut off. Even though the main line had been turned off, there could still have been gas in the home lines, he said.
Riggs said he and the other local firefighters had an opportunity to talk with some of the residents, who, by that time had accepted their misfortune and were no longer “real somber.” They understood the magnitude of the disaster but were hopeful they would recover, he said.
Although the neighborhood was “completely wiped out,” he said, there was some consolation in the fact that there weren’t mass casualties. Only one person from the community died.
“I think everybody felt fortunate that it wasn’t worse for them,” Riggs said. “It was mostly property.”
Riggs said local firefighters would ask people where they were when the storm struck.
“One guy was like, ‘I was sitting on my couch… and the next thing I knew, I was lying in my front yard, and my house was completely gone.”
“We heard that story over and over,” he said. “We heard, ‘I was home, and I woke up and things rattled and shook for 30 seconds, and we were in our yard.’”
Riggs was impressed with how well-coördinated the relief effort was when he was there. When they got there, he said, Newport Fire had been doing hazard mitigation.
“They were almost worn out when we came in, and they gave us a briefing and showed us a couple of things they were dong, and we picked up where they left off and they packed up and left,” he said.
Winchester and Clark County firefighters worked alongside the Nicholasville Fire Department for about 48 hours, and then the next day, firefighters arrived from Montgomery County, Ashland, Corbin and other places, and they similarly briefed them before returning home.
“We worked with a lot of agencies, and we integrated almost seamlessly,” he said.
Asbury said Clark County will likely be sending more people down in the next week or so as Emergency Management requests damage assessment teams.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, is also in Kentucky working to provide assistance to survivors of the disaster.