The streets were impassable, barricaded by one twisted tree after another.
But Collegedale police Officer David Burgess, Reserve Cpl. Perry Collins and reserve officer Joe Greenleaf still climbed through to canvass house after house along Apison Pike, Clonts Road and Bates Drive.
They were out of their jurisdiction, but not out of the range of people who needed rescue.
“There’s somebody in here,” Collins called over the radio on April 27, when a man’s muffled cry answered the officer’s offer of help.
For 30 minutes or more in the dark that night, Collins and Greenleaf tried with makeshift fulcrums and splintered two-by-fours to lift the wall and roof that trapped the man beneath the remains of his house.
Then the dispatcher from the Hamilton County Emergency Operations Center told them to stop work and take cover. Another tornado cell was headed right at them.
But they kept working, and a street or two over, Burgess heard the exchange over his radio.
“I knew I could take cover, but I knew what they were doing,” Burgess said.
So instead of finding a ditch, he headed their way.
At the same time, a civilian wandered up with a fresh flashlight — a lifesaver in itself since the officers’ lights were failing.
With the muscles of all three officers and one more heave, they created a small opening and pulled the man free. By then, the rain was coming in sideways.
“It felt like bees hitting us,” Collins said.
In the Emergency Operations Center, storm response coordinators listened and watched radar as the new storm cell seemed to target the officers.
Hamilton County Emergency Management Agency Chief Bill Tittle recalled the radio messages as the officers relayed that they were carrying the rescued man to a railroad ditch.
“One of them said, ‘It’s on top of us,’” Tittle said. “Then we couldn’t raise them for the longest time. Finally they said they were OK. You could have heard a pin drop in that EOC.”
Collins smiled ever so slightly at Tittle’s recollection.
“I guess I sounded like a little girl. But all I wanted to do was let them know where to find our bodies,” he said quietly.
The storm cell passed without unleashing another tornado on Apison.
Collins said the officers never again saw the civilian with the flashlight.
“We think he was an angel,” Collins said.
Pam Sohn has been reporting or editing Chattanooga news for 25 years. A Walden’s Ridge native, she began her journalism career with a 10-year stint at the Anniston (Ala.) Star. She came to the Chattanooga Times Free Press in 1999 after working at the Chattanooga Times for 14 years. She has been a city editor, Sunday editor, wire editor, projects team leader and assistant lifestyle editor. As a reporter, she also has covered the police, ...