The sirens blared into the night. A crackle over the intercom confirmed everyone’s fear — a tornado had just touched down in Ringgold.
In the back of an ambulance, Melani Fortner swayed from side to side as she stocked supplies while gusts of wind threatened to topple the vehicle.
As the truck swerved to a halt in front of the remains of the McDonald’s on Alabama Highway, the ambulance’s flashing emergency lights danced across the remnants of other nearby restaurants. Fortner could hear winds from the giant EF4 twister in the distance as it continued into downtown Ringgold. She saw sparks from the freshly severed power lines sizzling in the road.
Fortner swung open the vehicle’s back door and a man fell in, bleeding and unable to speak.
An eight-year paramedic with Angel Emergency Medical Services, Fortner and her partner Chad Hullender were in the first ambulance to arrive on scene. A crowd of confused and bleeding people circled the vehicle.
“It was like ‘Dawn of the Dead,’” Fortner remembers. “They were walking out dazed.”
But Fortner, who had been called in as backup on her day off, didn’t blink an eye as she began to wrap the wounds on the first patient, then set up an area to care for the rest of the wounded, Hullender said.
The next few minutes were crucial. Hullender began to pull people from the rubble and search through collapsed buildings using a flashlight. Fortner stayed at the ambulance, which had become an impromptu command center, tagging the wounded red, yellow or green, depending on the degree of their injuries.
“It was amazing to see how fast everything happened,” Hullender said.
As more ambulances started flooding to the area, Fortner loaded patients into the vehicles, filling one, sending it on its way, then moving to the next one.
By the time Lana Duff, the operations manager for Angel EMS, got on the scene 20 minutes later, everyone in critical condition had already left in an ambulance.
“They couldn’t have done a better job,” Duff said.
Joy Lukachick Smith is the city government reporter for the Chattanooga Times Free Press. Since 2009, she's covered crime and court systems in North Georgia and rural Tennessee, landed an exclusive in-prison interview with a former cop convicted of killing his wife, exposed impropriety in an FBI-led, child-sex online sting and exposed corruption in government agencies. Earlier this year, Smith won the Malcolm Law Memorial Award for Investigative Reporting. She also won first place in ...