'Heart-wrenching': First responders describe minutes after tornado touched down

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BySamantha Kummerer WTVD logo
Friday, July 21, 2023
'Heart-wrenching': First responders on minutes after tornado struck
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"I can't believe it": The destruction left in the wake of Wednesday's EF-3 tornado shocked communities in Nash County, even rescue workers.

NASH COUNTY, N.C. (WTVD) -- The destruction left in the wake of Wednesday's EF-3 tornado shocked communities in Nash County.

"I've never witnessed the damage that this tornado did," said Todd Wells, assistant fire chief at the Red Oak Volunteer Fire Department. "I look at the trees and you take a tree that I can't wrap my arms around and it's snapped off like a matchstick. I can't believe it."

Wells has lived and worked in the central North Carolina county for five decades. He called the destruction in his hometown "heart-wrenching."

"I left my home yesterday morning and things were fine and to think that I'd come back home and some of these people, the houses weren't even there. I mean, it's completely demolished; nothing," he said. "My heart goes out to you. I just can't imagine coming home to that."

Wells remembered the initial 911 calls were all coming from residents reporting a tornado had touched down, but then reports of destruction started.

"As we got on the truck and start that way, we start getting calls and we hear radio traffic of houses demolished, gas tanks leaking, and wrecks on I-95. It was pretty chaotic," Wells said.

He said he and other Red Oak firefighters responded to around six calls on Wednesday. In many of the calls, the victims were able to remove themselves from their homes. First responders had to treat everything from cuts and bruises to difficulty breathing and walking.

Despite responding to scene after scene of destruction, Wells said the true reality of the devastation didn't hit him until after his shift.

"I couldn't go to sleep last night. It was 1:30, 2 a.m. before I fell asleep because of all those things going through your mind and just how blessed you are and just how unfortunate it is for the people that have been affected by it," he said.

Across town, another responder picking up the pieces echoed Wells' sentiment.

"This is serious. You see stuff. But then when you look at it, actually in-person, it's like a whole different thing," said Denise Williams, an advanced crew leader with Flagger Force.

Williams' company contracted with Duke Energy to restore power across Nash County. When the tornado touched down on Wednesday she was already working on another project in Nashville when she got a call.

READ MORE: EF-3 tornado rips roof off County Commissioner's home in Battleboro

"He was like, 'We've got to hurry up. We've got to hurry up." I was like, 'Why.' He said, 'A tornado is coming,'" Williams recalled.

She said the initial scene reminded her of the similar aftermaths that she had witnessed working recovery efforts on disasters in other states.

"It was nothing but trees. I couldn't get in on that side of the road," Williams recalled.

She said she and other workers spent all of Wednesday and Thursday restoring power lines.

"Last night we worked until 12 or 1 o'clock," she said. "There were wires hanging down and I was like, I wonder if they are hot and you've got to watch where you are stepping. You don't know if you are going to get shocked out here and I'm like, 'Wow. I got a family to go home to, too.'"

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Wells remembered one other tornado in Red Oak in 1988 but said that storm was incomparable to the destruction this time around.

"We all, you know, try to preplan an incident like that and you train for that. But when it hits it's no training at that time, you know, until everything starts to come together. But I would give Red Oak Fire Department a 10 out of 10 for their response yesterday," Wells said. He extended that rating to all of Nash County's collective response.

He said in the coming weeks officials will formally review the county and towns' response and build on it for ways first responders can improve going forward.

Wells said the number of calls to his department was significantly down on Thursday. Red Oak firefighters responded to just one call of emergency workers getting stung by a bee. However, Wells said he is concerned about future calls.

"We worry now because the chainsaws come out, the heavy equipment comes out. A lot of people hire people to do this, but a lot of people do it on their own and they're not used to using chainsaws or heavy equipment and things happen," Wells said.

READ MORE: Nash County neighbors pick up pieces, start repairs after tornado