By Jeff Noble
Darren Pennington and Frank Votolato remember exactly where they were on Friday, March 2, 2012.
As members of the East Bernstadt Volunteer Fire Department, they and other first responders were the first to get the call from Laurel Dispatch, paging them to the scene when an EF-2 tornado hit the area that evening.
As Votolato, a lieutenant and paramedic put it, “We were doing what we were trained to do.”
And, from the support they and other emergency personnel got in the hours and days ahead, they did it very well.
They knew severe weather was coming that day. Pennington added it was just a matter of time when and where the tornado would hit.
“We’d been warned about it for a week. On that night, we had six or seven guys here in the building, and we had a small trailer park nearby when the tornado warning siren went off. All of them came into the building to take refuge. Several people were driving down 25 (U.S. 25, where the fire station’s located) and heard the warning siren. They pulled into the station to take cover,” said Pennington, who is deputy chief of the fire department.
Around 7:05 p.m., the tornado touched down on the west side of Wood Creek Lake.
“Several of us saw the tornado as it went across the area from here in the building,” Pennington remembered.
Votolato was at home when the twister made its march across I-75, then U.S. 25 and northeast to Little Arthur Ridge Road area before it ended just east of KY 490 to Farris Jones Road.
He wasn’t there for long.
“I live on Filter Plant Road and I saw the tornado pass by. My wife saw me getting dressed and putting my boots on to go into the station. She said, ‘Where are you going?’ I told her, ‘We’re safe. I’ve got to go out and help people.’”
It wasn’t long before East Bernstadt got the page. Votolato said it was only the beginning.
“The initial page came over from dispatch about a collapsed building. Dispatch said the caller who phoned them could hear screams from the people inside. And we got many more calls after that.”
One section of East Bernstadt hit hard by the tornado was the Bentley Road-Watkins Road and Old Hare Road area, north of where the station is. But the twister’s fury made a short run a difficult drive.
“We went up to Bentley Road where people’s homes were blown completely away. One family of five was blown out of their home into a field. The problem was getting access to the homes, cutting trees out and getting that done so we could rescue people. We had our first fatalities around the Bentley Road and Watkins Road area,” said Pennington.
Also in a matter of minutes, the East Bernstadt fire station would lose power due to electric lines being blown down by the tornado. But as damage reports began to come in, the lights came on and the volunteers came through.
“I was was here at the command post, and when the power went out, we used a generator. Within a minute, we were getting calls about everything happening from the tornado. We placed an ‘all calls’ page, to send all fire departments in the county to come here. Two of them, Crossroads and Laurel County, were already headed here before the page. They actually had debris falling on their parking lot at the Crossroads fire station on KY 490. They went quickly to work, and we sent Laurel County VFD to Arthur Ridge, where they had reports of damage,” Pennington said.
Throughout the evening and into the overnight, Votolato and other first-responders were all on the same page — to rescue people and save lives.
“As a paramedic, I initially went out with the Sheriff’s Office in their military humvees. We were picking up injured people and bringing them to the ambulances, which were taking them to Saint Joseph (Saint Joseph-London hospital). We did primary searches all night that Friday night, and then a secondary search on Saturday. I don’t remember feeling anything that Friday night. We were doing what we were trained to do.”
Pennington added, “We actually have trained for this after what happened on 9/11. They teach you to work on a large scale with other first responders. You think you won’t need it, but it happened on March 2, and all that training kicked in.”
What the volunteer firefighters didn’t know that darkest of nights was that help was on the way.
This time, from other kinds of volunteers.
“Within an hour we got more help. The outpouring from the businesses, the churches and the community was overwhelming. We had water, food, and things to help those people who were desperately in need,” said Pennington.
As Saturday continued, the search and rescue mission went into a salvage and recovery mode. True to form, Kentucky’s weather changed dramatically that day, with colder temperatures moving through the area, along with rain and snow coming in. Pennington and other volunteers began helping homeowners and businesses clean up the damage, cover the roofs with plastic tarp, move trees and debris from the neighborhood, and help people get their lives back in order.
At one point, there was time to stop for a short while.
“Late Saturday afternoon, we took a break and it finally hit me about the scope of the destruction we saw. I’m originally from Florida, where we’re used to dealing with hurricanes. But to see what could happen in two to three minutes? It hit me. And by Saturday night, it began to sink in,” said Votolato.
Throughout the ordeal, the community pitched in, as well as volunteers from near and far. He added among those who came to give a helping hand were members of what many refer to as “America’s Bravest.”
“Firefighters from Richmond, Berea and Hazard came down to East Bernstadt to help us. There were several from Lexington. If it wasn’t for the volunteers, we wouldn’t have pulled through. They talk about unsung heroes, the volunteers were it. They served unselfishly.”
Six persons from the East Bernstadt area died from the tornado. Five of them died instantly Friday night. One other person suffered life-threatening injuries and was in critical condition at a Lexington hospital for three weeks before she died.
Like many who serve in the volunteer fire service, Pennington holds a full-time job. He works in the warehouse at Laurel Grocery Company. One of those who worked at the company was a truck driver, Sherman Wayne Allen.
On the night of the tornado, Sherman Wayne, his wife Debbie, their son Eric and his fiancé Amy Harris were at their mobile home on Little Arthur Ridge Road when they sought shelter and took cover.
Emergency responders found Eric and Amy and treated them for injuries.
Sherman Wayne and Debbie were found dead later that night.
The outpouring of help from organizations, businesses, government, churches, and individuals continued into East Bernstadt for days, then weeks and stretched into months. Pennington, Votolato, and other firefighters were among those who made sure people were okay, were safe and got what they needed in terms of necessities.
That was very important when the weather warmed up.
“We checked on people for months. In the summer months, we continued to do so, and found out a lot of people needed air conditioning because of the heat. So we went out and bought air conditioners for them,” said Pennington.
In time, many of those from out of town who helped to rebuild the area left after their jobs were done. So too did FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, along with several volunteer organizations. Votolato said one result of what happened the night of March 2, 2012 is that a lot of homeowners in the area now have tornado shelters on their property. Pennington added he would like to see more warning systems for tornadoes and other severe weather events put up across Laurel County. And because of better equipment, apparatus and other resources obtained over the past few months, the department says they’re better prepared to serve should another bout of severe weather come through.
But there are still scars.
Some can be seen along the countryside, from the downed trees where the tornado sliced through. Other scars come from the foundations of houses and mobile homes that were lifted and slammed into the ground in one violent jolt.
Most of all, inside those who were in East Bernstadt a year ago today, the scars especially remain. And those will be seared in their memory forever.
“Overall, it’s getting a little bit back together. I still see some metal debris that needs to be picked up. People are trying. It’ll be years before things really get back to normal. This wasn’t the first tornado. And I can guarantee it won’t be the last. And we’ll be ready,” Pennington said.
Votolato paused for a moment inside the fire station, and added, “Every time when the weather gets bad, we get a little antsy. A lot of people still get a little shellshocked after last March. The area’s coming back. But they’ll never forget this. We’ll never forget this.”