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If it collapses, they will come

Special photo
This aerial view from the Clayton County Police helicopter shows Tara Boulevard in Spalding County. The tornado got close to Clayton, but not close enough to cause any damage.

Special photo This aerial view from the Clayton County Police helicopter shows Tara Boulevard in Spalding County. The tornado got close to Clayton, but not close enough to cause any damage.

By Kathy Jefcoats

kjefcoats@news-daily.com

When Clayton County firefighters, doubling as special rescue workers, showed up in tornado-ravaged Catoosa County last week, they got directions from a local police officer.

"He said, 'The destruction's over there,' and kind of pointed," said Lt. Jeff Keyros. "And he was right. There was more devastation in one place than I'd ever seen."

That's what brought Keyros and other members of the Region 7 Georgia Search and Rescue Team to the northwest Georgia county.

On April 27, a tornado spun a nearly 600-yard-wide path for 13 miles toward Tennessee. Eight people died and more than 30 were reported injured. Local resources were quickly exhausted and outside reinforcements called in to assist.

Keyros is part of an elite search-and-rescue unit born out of the events of Sept. 11, 2001. Clayton County Fire and Emergency Services Chief Jeff Hood said officials realized there were not enough personnel trained in search-and-rescue efforts, so changes were made and funding was made available. The teams are based in key areas around the state, and assist after natural and manmade disasters.

"They are highly-trained and qualified," said Hood. "They learn in a classroom, but also do practical simulation. It's very dangerous to simulate that environment."

Personnel have re-created tight spaces through a series of tunnels built on the training grounds behind Clayton fire headquarters on Ga. 85. The interior of an old trailer has been reconstructed to simulate the twists and turns of a house attic. Chunks of concrete piled up represents the rubble of a fallen building.

Instead of going into a dangerous situation with air tanks strapped to their backs, rescuers wear a mask attached to an air hose that allows them to get into compact quarters.

The Clayton team members took all that experience and hundreds of hours of training with them to Catoosa. "When we first got there, we did reconnaissance in different areas," said Keyros. "We checked on residents and distributed water to folks, checked structures."

Finding injured people wasn't hard, but getting them away from their homes to be treated proved a bit harder. "We had a 16-year-old girl walk up who'd been knocked around and had glass in her legs," he said. "But they had lots of looters, and people were trying to stay with their stuff to protect it."

Sometimes, calls for help yielded nothing. Lt. David Lepley said about 20 rescuers lined up along a woodline to look for a woman someone heard yelling for help. "We didn't find anyone, but that just goes to show the number of people who were willing to get out and look," he said. "We did a lot of searching but not a lot of rescuing."

Keyros sees that as a positive, though. "Fortunately, we spend more time training for the bad day than having the bad day itself," he said.

Before the tornado touched down in Catoosa, one raced through Spalding County, lifting up just shy of Clayton and Henry, sparing both. The small community of Sunny Side lost seven residents and sustained millions of dollars in damage to residences and businesses.

Clayton County Police Chief Greg Porter allowed emergency services personnel to go up in his department's helicopter to scour the panhandle of the county for damage. Photographs track the tornado's path through bent and broken trees, shattered and scattered remains of structures and empty plots of dirt where homes were the day before.

The tornado twisted and wended its way north toward Tara Boulevard -- and Clayton and Henry -- not unlike the rushing parade of commuters who make their way up the busy four-lane every day. However, the powerful destruction ended as suddenly as those same drivers when they spot a police car checking for speeders.

Hood whistled low, and shook his head just thinking about what could have happened if the tornado had continued its northeasterly path. "As densely populated as we are in that part of the county, the loss of life could have been tremendous," he said.

Clayton County was spared property damage from the tornadoes that destroyed Catoosa and Sunny Side, but that was not the case on Mothers Day 2008. A tornado roared through 19 miles in a path that sometimes widened to 100 yards. Nearly 200 homes were damaged and 500 residents were displaced. The local Georgia Search and Rescue Team was activated during that disaster, too.

"We have multiple members of the team on all three shifts, in case of any emergency," said Hood.

Sometimes, the disasters are manmade. In July 2009, a six-story parking deck collapsed in downtown Atlanta and the GSAR team headed north. Using specialized tools and equipment -- and a table saw for cutting lumber -- the team worked to shore up walls and make it safe for others to get in and out.

"As soon as I pulled up, they pointed me to a cutting table," said Sgt. Danny Hart. "We must have been a foot deep in sawdust."