Volunteer firefighters Bryan Guffey and Derek Collins don’t like to talk about Wednesday night.
“It was hell,” 20-year-old Collins said, quietly and unequivocally. He doesn’t say anything more for a long time. His suntanned, young face and blue eyes show the pain.
On April 27, an EF4 tornado ripped up 33 miles of DeKalb County, tossing splintered homes and people in the vortex of 175-mph winds. Of the 34 people who died in the county, nine were from Sylvania.
Guffey, Collins and 15 other volunteer firefighters from the Sylvania Volunteer Fire Department were among the first to respond to calls for help seconds after the storm hit. Some were already at the firehouse; others raced from their nearby homes in response to calls of trapped and dying victims.
For more than eight hours they worked, freeing people from homes, wrapping the injured in blankets and holding the hands of the dying. They have no idea how many roads they cleared for rescue vehicles or how many people they rescued.
“I’ve worked an ungodly number of hours since Wednesday just so I don’t have to slow down and think about what I saw,” Guffey said. “It helps you cope.”
In the week since, the firefighters from the close-knit town of 1,200 people have continued to work. Their firehouse is a supply station, clogged with stacks of bottled water and food. They clear roads and help neighbors move debris.
They aren’t getting paid. They don’t care.
Guffey called his supervisor at his job in Fort Payne to say he won’t be coming to work for a while. He isn’t sure if he still has a job.
“I told him I don’t care,” Guffey said. “These people need help more than I need a job. They may be neighbors but we think of them as family.”
Mariann Martin covers healthcare in Chattanooga and the surrounding region. She joined the Times Free Press in February 2011, after covering crime and courts for the Jackson (Tenn.) Sun for two years. Mariann was born in Indiana, but grew up in Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Belize. She graduated from Union University in 2005 with degrees in English and history and has master’s degrees in international relations and history from the University of Toronto. While attending Union, ...