Hattiesburg, MS Local 184 members took shelter in the nick of time before their Fire Station 2 took a direct hit from an EF-3 Tornado in the early morning hours of January 21 that destroyed dozens of homes and killed four people.

Hattiesburg Local 184 President Robert Dillard says the emergency alert system issued a tornado warning about 35 minutes before it roared through Hattiesburg in central Mississippi, about 112 miles north of New Orleans. The tornado tore the roof off the fire station, knocked out power and damaged apparatus.

Though no one on duty was injured, Dillard says storm damage blocked access to apparatus bays, forcing Local 184 members to move out on foot to conduct house-to-house searches. The Mississippi Emergency Management Agency (MEMA) officials reported multiple people trapped in their homes due to structural damage and debris.

Zack Barrett, an engineer and Local 184 member from a neighboring station, had picked up an overtime shift at Station 2 when the dispatcher announced that a tornado had touched ground and was heading in the station’s direction.

“It’s a busy station, and we had just returned from a medical call,” says Barrett. “As the tornado approached, I could feel increased pressure in my ears. The three of us on duty suited up and only had time to take shelter in the engine. As the tornado moved over us, debris started hitting the engine.”

A lieutenant on duty sustained minor cuts to his face after the winds, gusting at up to 160 miles per hour, blew out the front driver-side window of the engine. “The first tornado probably lasted about 20 seconds but it felt like it went on for several minutes,” says Barrett.

Soon after the tornado passed, dispatch issued a second warning and the three were able to move from the engine to a nearby storm shelter, a 10-by-10 concrete bunker adjacent to the station.

By 5:00 a.m., a regional rescue and recovery task force comprised of MEMA officials, IAFF members and police officers were out in force pulling people from their homes and labeling structures based on the levels of damage. Will Lewis, a Local 187 member and training coordinator for MEMA Task Force Three, says the rescue and
recovery efforts worked nearly flawlessly, noting that communications were down for several minutes during the initial phase of the operation, an expected hiccup in any major storm.