“Terrifying” is the only way firefighter Billy Cunningham knows to describe the tornadoes that hit Van Zandt County Saturday.
In addition to his work with Kilgore Fire Department, Cunningham also serves as a firefighter for South Van Zandt Volunteer Fire Department. This is where he was when the severe storm caused destruction in Van Zandt and surrounding counties.
Cunningham and the other firefighters in his company had to halt their initial response because another tornado was on the ground with their station in its crosshairs.
“It was coming right for us, and it almost took our station,” he said. “We actually watched it come at us and then it kind of turned and started heading north to the highway.”
As soon as the tornado passed their station and they were in the clear, they followed the storm to respond. As more tornadoes touched down, their response continued throughout Saturday night and into Sunday morning.
As of Tuesday, the National Weather Service in Fort Worth had confirmed seven tornadoes in Van Zandt, Rains and Henderson Counties with Van Zandt receiving the most destruction. In total, four people were killed with more than 50 suffering storm-related injuries.
Gov. Greg Abbott said Sunday at least 5,000 addresses were affected by the tornadoes, including one EF-4, one EF-3, one EF-2 and four EF-0s on the Enhanced Fujita scale. Based on the EF scale, wind speeds in the EF-4 tornado could have reached up to 200 mph with the EF-3 having the potential to reach 165 mph.
People say the aftermath of a tornado looks like a bomb went off, and Kilgore Police Department Sgt. Vance Callahan said, “That literally is what it looked like. It’s horrible. There’s more destruction; it’s unbelievable.”
Out assisting law enforcement in the area Sunday and Monday, Callahan drove the path of the tornadoes with Van Zandt County Pct. 4 Constable Pat Jordan.
“I talked to so many people that were victims,” he said.
One man was holding onto a large vehicle engine when he and the engine were blown 60 to 70 feet, slamming the man against a car, knocking him out.
“He, quote, told me he held onto that engine and his feet were literally flying and dangling in the air,” Callahan said.
Another couple he spoke with and gave supplies to were huddled around the toilet in their bathroom during the storm and when the tornado passed, that toilet bowl was the only thing left of the house.
“He put a stump there where they were at” on the slab that used to be their house, Callahan said. The man’s back looked like he had been “shot with 10 shotguns with birdshot. There was purple marks and dots all over his back from his neck down. He said he was pulling splinters of wood out of his back. I don’t know how they survived it. Good Lord was looking out for them.”
Cunningham’s response with his South Van Zandt VFD company took them down flooded roadways to save people trapped in their vehicles and over tree branches and cable lines to get to people needing help.
“What was it like? Wow,” he said. “Devastation, destruction, debris fields. It was just too much to take in. Too much to put into words.”
A second company from the South Van Zandt department was caught in one of the tornadoes while responding, Cunningham said, but the other firefighters were helpless in that moment.
“Luckily by the grace of God they turned out OK,” he said. “It was very scary for them. It makes you turn pale white when you hear screaming over the radio.”
After ending the first round of response at 5 a.m. Sunday, Cunningham said, the company came back to the station in complete darkness wit no electricity or running water, got a tw- hour nap before going back out at 7 a.m. and staying out until about 8 p.m. Sunday.
Then, Cunningham got a little rest before starting his shift at Kilgore early Monday morning.
The help surrounding communities, including Kilgore, have provided has been a welcome and impressive sight, Cunningham said.
“I was blown away,” he said, by the emergency responders from surrounding areas who donated time and took an apparatus out of service to help in Van Zandt County. “It’s pretty awesome to see that. I’m very thankful because I know a lot of departments in Van Zandt County, including mine in Canton, were pretty whipped and beat.”
KFD was one of those departments to support the efforts in and around Canton, sending four persons and a fire engine to the site of the devastation.
Assigned to cleanup and search and rescue in Van Zandt County, KFD Chief Johnny Bellows said, another company took air mattresses and bottled water – donated by Walmart – to Rains County and Emory.
Although Bellows did not respond personally, he said, the scene of a natural disaster is “a humbling experience… You see so much devastation.”
The human side of the destruction comes out as the reality of what people have lost sets in, Bellows, who responded to Hurricane Katrina in 2006, said.
“You kind of in your mind continually go through, ‘What if that was me?’” he said. “It just touches your heart to go out there.”
The work, although difficult, is rewarding also, to help people who in some cases have lost everything.
With response from KFD, Kilgore Police Department and community members, Bellows said, “I’m proud to be a part of a city that is willing to send people to help out.”
“It’s kind of like what most firefighters get into the line of work to begin with,” KFD driver/engineer Justin Cope said. “We just enjoy being able to help people and surrounding communities.”
Three officers from KPD also traveled to the area to help, working through Saturday night.
In addition to simply being in the community to help, KPD Sgt. Jason Romine, Sgt. Jarod Sears and Officer Josh Vercher also took with them water and non-perishable food items donated by Kilgore Walmart.
“We loaded down a couple of cars with that and we made our way to Canton,” Romine said. “Once we arrived, there were trees down, power lines across the highways. You’re driving through town, and it’s like a ghost town. You can’t even really tell you’re in town because you can’t see outside of what your headlights are showing, but you’re driving through the middle of the city and it looks like you’re in the country.”
Their first stop was Canton High School, but they were relocated to the Texas Department of Transportation office in Canton to meet with other emergency responders. To get to the location, Romine said, he followed a farm-to-market road he compared to a pig trail – TxDOT and fire personnel had to cut a path through the downed trees for the officers.
Each of the three KPD officers were sent to different locations in the county to help secure the hardest hit areas, allowing only emergency personnel and residents into the area.
Romine said he heard reports of looting, but there were multiple people driving around that he said might have been just looking at the damage or might have had had other intentions.
“We had to turn some away,” he said. “Some got to go if they lived on the road. We just kind of secured up the areas that were hit hardest.”
With spotty-at-best cell phone service, Romine said, he was happy a Van Zandt County game warden could help direct the officers where they needed to set up.
“A lot of the agencies there were not Canton or Van Zandt County law enforcement,” he said. “It was all over, and nobody knew where we… Once I drove through town and I missed my turn because I thought I was supposed to be in town to turn and done drove completely through town and didn’t even realize it.”
When Kilgore native Melissa Temple saw the help her hometown was offering to her current home of Canton, she said, “I was in tears I was so happy.”
When she and her husband were in the car, she said, it was bright yet cloudy on one side of the car and dark on the other.
“We got home, and about 10 minutes later it hit,” she said. “The bottom just fell out – the rain, the thunder, the lightning. It turned nasty after that, and I don’t think it calmed down… We had about five to six hours worth of storms. We thought it would slow down and then it would start again. Then it calmed down again, and then it was three little storms behind that big one. I was like, ‘Is it ever going to stop?’”
Temple and her family rode out the storm at their home in Canton while two tornadoes passed a few miles away from their house near downtown Canton.
Power was lost about 7 p.m. Saturday, Temple said, and was restored at about 7 a.m. Monday.
From what she could see of the severe storm, she said, “It was not a very pretty sight.” After the storms passed, “the aftermath was just nasty.”
“I couldn’t imagine being in the middle of it while it was going on,” Callahan said.