Decatur (IL) Firefighters Were ‘All Over the City’ After 1996 Tornadoes

Two fire apparatus

Donnette Beckett

Herald & Review, Decatur, Ill.


Apr. 17——–

Editor’s note: This story is part of a larger project looking back at the 25th anniversary of the “two nights of fury,” when back-to-back tornadoes struck the Decatur area. Click here for more coverage, including photos and video footage from April 1996.


Deputy Chief Jim Ohl was a fairly new firefighter at Station 3 in April 1996.

“We were all over the city,” said Ohl, recalling the chaos that followed the first tornado on April 18. He was supposed to be off that night, but had traded so he could be off on Friday.

“It was quite a night,” Ohl said.

The firefighters were assisting in the affected neighborhoods, where buildings had been demolished, roofs were missing and power lines were downed.

Having started his career only 18 months earlier, Ohl considered himself a new firefighter. “I was doing what I was told by my captain,” he said.

One of his responsibilities included checking homes and buildings for victims.

“But most people were out of their residence,” Ohl said. “A lot of people were milling around. Once they realized they were OK, they were checking on neighbors.”

In the years that have followed, Ohl doesn’t remember experiencing another situation of that magnitude.

“In our business we always see a lot of destruction. But to that level, that was quite an incident,” he said. “It took out neighborhoods.”

While the event proved to be a learning experience, Ohl said each ordeal brings its own challenges.

“I don’t know how you can ever say you’re 100% prepared for something like that,” he said. “You deal with what’s in front of you.”

The key is to keep learning and making the necessary changes. He used the Sept. 11 attacks as an example.

“We have a more structured way of going about disasters now,” he said. “The focus is on being more organized and structured.”


Contact Donnette Beckett at (217) 421-6983. Follow her on Twitter: @donnettebHR


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