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.

A lake­front com­mu­ni­ty of 200 or so homes in the Grand Rivers area near Benton, Ky., was oblit­er­at­ed by a tor­na­do a week ago. Firefighters from Winchester and Clark County were there that week­end doing haz­ard mit­i­ga­tion work. (Photo from Winchester Fire-EMS)

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.

  • Randy Patrick

    Randy Patrick is a deputy coun­ty clerk for elec­tions and vot­er reg­is­tra­tion and a for­mer reporter and edi­tor of The Winchester Sun.