An immediate response

Police, fire, emergency responders recall first minutes of tornado aftermath

T-R FILE PHOTO - Emergency responders were out checking on people as soon as ThursdayÕs destructive tornado dissipated. From firefighter-EMTs to paramedics to police officers, the public safety personnel checked up and down the damage area for those in need of help.

The calls for help began as soon as the EF-3 tornado that tore through downtown Marshalltown Thursday dissipated — those calls were answered.

“We had our secretary, Karen, and a few employees from Diamond Vogel came over … we sheltered in our building,” said Marshalltown Fire Lt. Nic Hanus, the commanding fire officer at the time of the storm. “We started getting calls almost immediately after.”

Responding to calls is what firefighters do, but the tornado’s aftermath made getting around much more of a challenge than normal.

“Travel was interesting, we had a lot of roads that were impassable,” Hanus said. “Our initial calls that we responded to were entrapment calls, and then we would start responding to broken gas meters and gas leaks … as soon as we’d finish one, we’d ask the station what was the next call pending.”

Hanus said once the 9 p.m. curfew took effect Thursday, calls for firefighter-EMT services died down. Marshalltown Deputy Fire Chief Christopher Cross said he and Fire Chief David Rierson were at an educational conference in the Quad Cities area when they got word that a large tornado had hit town.

“We communicated with each other, we got our stuff together and left the Quad Cities as fast as humanly possible,” Cross said. “The fire chief and I rolled in and we were kind of able to integrate into the command structure.”

Since Thursday and Friday, he said the fire department has returned to normal staffing levels.

“We’ve kind of transitioned … to the recovery phase,” Cross said. “We still have to do all of the normal things that we always do.”

He said there have been two residential fires since the tornado, one of which was a result of damage from the tornado.

“We had one (Saturday) … that was attributable to limbs down on power lines,” he said. Cross said that fire occurred on Sixth Street just south of Main Street.

It wasn’t just Marshalltown departments responding to the storm damage Thursday. Several entities from out of the city and county rushed to the scene to help.

“We were actually out storm spotting in our area … you could see the storm from Gilman, it was really rain-wrapped,” said Gilman Fire Chief Randy Mommer. “As soon as they tripped the whole county, we were on the road within minutes.”

Once his team arrived, Mommer said they assisted with a response to a gas leak at the Tremont restaurant on Main Street. After that, they moved door-to-door to check on residents beginning at Thirteenth Street.

“There were six or seven of us that went door-to-door,” Mommer said. “I think that took us about two-and-a-half to three hours … there was a lot of structural damage; tops taken off of houses, houses actually pushed off foundations, a lot of trees through the houses.”

Hanus said his Thursday crew didn’t hesitate to stick around Friday to help with recovery after a long Thursday afternoon of answering calls.

“My crew finished our scheduled shift at 7 a.m. the following morning and everybody stayed for the overtime,” he said. “I don’t think anybody even went home, we just stayed here in the station.”

Police response

It was all hands on deck for police officers in Marshalltown as soon as the tornado disappeared. Immediately after the storm, Marshalltown Police Officer Stephanie Lampe said there was “mass confusion” among many residents about what to do and where to go.

“My main job was traffic,” she said. “I was on Third Street and that was really busy.”

Family members and friends raced across town to check on loved ones and people from within and outside of the path of destruction came to view the damage.

“The biggest thing we were running into was people from everywhere trying to get into town,” Lampe said. “We had to tell them all to go south of town.”

It was a chaotic environment for Lampe and her colleagues to try and direct traffic after the storm. With trees and power lines down across many main roadways, normal paths were cut off.

Lampe wasn’t on duty when the storm initially hit. She was one of many off-duty public safety personnel to rush in to support those already on the ground.

“That first 24 hours was basically going out into the neighborhoods and making sure people were safe,” said Marshalltown Police Capt. Brian Batterson. He said after that, the next two priorities were traffic control and prevention of looting.

Batterson said the check-ups went well into the Thursday night and Friday. All of the responders teamed up under the supervision of Marshalltown Police Chief Mike Tupper.

“We scaled back our staff to normal levels last night,” Batterson said.

A community coming together

No matter the situation, emergency responders said they were greeted with help and offerings of food and water from residents in the stressful post-storm environment. Even the earliest calls brought scenes of neighbors helping neighbors.

“It was great to see people just start pitching in almost immediately,” Hanus said. “That was really uplifting.”

Mommer and Lampe both said they were offered food and water when they did door-to-door checks and traffic control, respectively.

“The amount of people that were actually coming to check on us … that was very much appreciated,” Mommer said.

Despite the extreme circumstances brought by the tornado, responders said they were doing what they were meant to do late last week.

“It was chaos, and they did a great job of cutting through all of that,” Cross said.

Mommer said there was no second thought for outside agencies to assist in Marshalltown after the destruction.

“That’s what we’re here for, is helping the community out,” he said.

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Contact Adam Sodders at (641) 753-6611 or asodders@timesrepublican.com