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Chaos Amid The Rubble: Garland Paramedic On His 48-Hour Shift In Tornado's Aftermath

A tornado over Rowlett was one of 12 that hit North Texas on Saturday.

On the night when 12 tornadoes raced across North Texas, it was up to first responders – police, firefighters, paramedics – to get folks out of harm’s way. 

For Capt. David Brown with the Garland Fire Department, the first call came just before 7 p.m.

It did not come as a surprise.

Brown and his crew in Station 8 were already preparing to respond to tornado damage after hearing on the radio that the another team had seen the twister. So when a call came in saying a house had collapsed six miles away in the southeast corner of town, they headed out.

"We responded to that district with all three pieces of equipment that we had here in this station, which is an engine company, a rescue and an ambulance," he said.

They arrived 15 minutes later to a devastated neighborhood just south of Interstate 30.

"It was kind of chaotic like you’d expect,” he said. "Just a lot of noise and hollering."

Brown says the destruction was surprising – these were sturdy houses. He’d know -- he used to build houses before he joined the fire department nearly 28 years ago.

"You see things in tornadoes that you’ll see nowhere else: Two-by-fours shoved through cars or a plastic dumpster that you put your trash in in your driveway would’ve punched a hole in a brick wall and gone all the way through the house,” Brown says. "It’s just the sheer power of what a tornado can do."

Brown’s five-man team set to work going house to house, pulling people out of immediate danger.

In the dark and the rain and the chaos, Brown remained practical.

Some considerations were small, like making sure he had backup batteries to keep flashlights going all night. Others were bigger, like keeping his crew safe.

“If we get hurt that just shuts everything down,” he says. "So I’m looking for utilities, live electrical lines and gas leaks such as that. If we do go into a building and start going into a search, I’m looking for possible collapse hazards." 

There’s a lot of confusion in the immediate aftermath of a big storm. Saturday was no different.

One call came in that said two children were stuck inside a half-collapsed house. The crew dug for more than 45 minutes. Searching for kids is harder because they’re smaller, and can fit into smaller spaces.

"We never found any victims, and at the end of that 45 minutes to an hour, a lady walked up and said that family was in Arkansas,” he says. "So, that was a relief."

Brown says many houses were empty – their owners out of town —and that was a blessing. Another blessing: If the twister had struck a mile west, it could have taken out a cluster of apartment complexes filled with people.

Brown and his crew worked the scene for five hours in the dark and cold – the rain coming in fits and spurts.

After his crew was released, Brown kept going. He was on for 48 hours straight before he could go home and sleep.

"I pretty much relaxed and tried to just tried to thank the lord that we had the few casualties that we had compared to what the damage looked like," he said.

Brown says you have to be able to stay optimistic to be a first responder -- to be able to focus on the good things and have strategies to let go of the bad.

Because after you rest up, it’s back to the firehouse for another shift, and you’ve got to be ready to respond to the next emergency.

Christopher Connelly is a reporter covering issues related to financial instability and poverty for KERA’s One Crisis Away series. In 2015, he joined KERA to report on Fort Worth and Tarrant County. From Fort Worth, he also focused on politics and criminal justice stories.