Radio-Controlled Mutual Aid Speeds Tornado Rescue Work

Radio-Controlled Mutual Aid Speeds Tornado Rescue Work

Mutual aid, coordinated through a county fire radio network, had a vital role in the search and rescue work that followed the destruction of a truck stop by a tornado in West Stockbridge, Mass. The twister killed four persons, injured 34 others, and caused millions of dollars of damage to buildings and woodland in both West Stockbridge and Richmond.

At 1:25 p.m. last August 28, the fire alarm operator at the Pittsfield, Mass., Fire Department phoned and asked me to respond to the Berkshire Truck Plaza in West Stockbridge, which had been demolished 10 minutes earlier. The truck stop restaurant and motel were leveled and three of the tornado’s four fatalities occurred there. The fourth victim was fatally injured when his West Stockbridge house was lifted off its foundation by the storm.

The Berkshire County fire radio network base station at the Berkshire County House of Correction was knocked out of commission by a thunderstorm a few minutes before the tornado hit, so I asked Pittsfield fire alarm to take over with equipment there as the county base station. I also directed the Pittsfield operator to start dispatching all ambulances in the area to the truck stop.

Equipment requested

I grabbed a portable radio and began the 15-mile trip to the truck stop. En route, I told Pittsfield fire alarm to ask Chief Gerard Gerdin of West Stockbridge what he needed. The chief asked for heavy moving equipment, hydraulic rescue tools, power saws and vehicles with winches. Calls to several towns got this equipment on the way.

The following fire departments had apparatus at the truck stop or on the way: Richmond with an ambulance, Lee and Stockbridge. The Department of Natural Resources also responded with manpower. When I asked for the Pittsfield Fire Department rescue truck, which has a winch and various heavy tools, I was told that it was already on the way.

The area hospitals were putting their disaster plan in effect and that ambulances were at the scene or en route from Chatham, Valatie, and the Lebannon Valley Protective Association in New York and from Richmond, Dalton, Lee, Lenox and Pittsfield, Mass. Also on the scene were the Massachusetts and New York state police, men from the Berkshire County Sheriff’s Office, and police from Dalton, Great Barrington, Lee, Lenox, and Lanesboro, Mass.

Because of the increase in radio traffic and phone calls, Pittsfield fire alarm called in another operator.

Building demolished

The Berkshire Truck Stop was an eating, refueling and sleeping place for truck drivers and motorists on Route 102 and the Massachusetts Turnpike. It had approximately 10 acres of hardtop.

Upon arrival at the truck stop, I saw that the restaurant-motel building was demolished. In the area were many vehicles belonging to workers, state police, volunteers and others working in the rubble.

Overturned truck is indicative of tornado's force. Spilled fuel and leaking propane gas tanks added to hazards of rescue work.Truck driver's body is removed from wreckage left by tornado that destroyed a truck stop in West Stockbridge, Mass. Author of article, Captain Robert P. Villanova, is at extreme right with walkie-talkie in his hand.

The state police had effectively sealed off the road to sightseers. Taking the portable radio with me, I reported to Chief Gerard Gerdin and told him what help I had called. I said I would coordinate incoming help and assist him in any way I could. He agreed that someone was needed to bring order to the mass confusion.

I went directly to the truck stop area, where many men were digging in the debris for victims. I directed two tow trucks to start hooking their cables onto some of this heavy debris and two autos in the restaurant area. When one car was gently rolled over with the use of a cable, we found one of the victims. He was placed on a stretcher and put in a nearby ambulance. Another victim was found in other debris and he was placed in the same ambulance.

I called for a man who had shortly before identified himself as a physician and offered his help. He examined the two victims and said they were dead.

Dangers in debris

There was much mass hysteria at this time and some man yelled to me that he knew there were 10 men trapped under a wall. This wall was carefully and quickly moved, but no victims were found. During all this time, there were live electrical wires in the rubble, leaking propane gas from the area where the restaurant stove had been, leaking gasoline from the two overturned cars and much debris all around.

I positioned Richmond Engine 1 around one side of the pile and Lee Engine 1 on the other side in case fire broke out. I also placed a West Stockbridge engine on the south flank. The warning of “no smoking” was repeatedly given.

When it was ascertained there were no more victims in the building area, we began searching the gasoline pump area, which was a tangled mess of steel and debris. At this time, a man who identified himself to me as a road contractor from Hudson, N.Y., volunteered any heavy equipment of his which was in the area and he immediately brought in two large GradeAlls. These, along with heavy equipment furnished by the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority, began pulling apart this debris. In this debris were two large trailer trucks, a pickup truck loaded with portable fuel tanks, and a geyser of fuel oil coming out a ruptured pipeline from an underground tank.

County base back on air

Simultaneous with all of this, I was in contact with Pittsfield fire alarm by radio and about 2:10 p.m., the Berkshire County base radio station, KCH 470, came back into service after repairs had been made. As soon as I had communication with KCH 470, I ordered that all towns without fire protection be covered. KCH 470 notified surrounding towns of the coverage expected of them in the event of any fires or other emergencies. Pittsfield fire alarm stayed with us during this ordeal.

The Pittsfield Fire Department sent not only the rescue truck but also two cars, one of which provided an escort to the Berkshire County Medical Team, with Deputy Chiefs William H. Reddy and Joseph Coy, Lieutenant Ralph Decker, and Inspectors George Coughlin and Prank Sacco. The Pittsfield Rescue 1 crew consisted of Captain Ronald Mazzeo and Fire Fighters David Chapman and John Huska.

Command post set up

I asked Reddy to set up a command post under the large canopy of an area that was undamaged by the tornado. From this command post, I ordered the immediate area around the perimeter of the truck stop to’ be searched by a team of volunteers and the utilities to be notified of the live wires and leaking gas. The two radioequipped Pittsfield cars were sent with a man from Richmond and West Stockbridge to every house they could reach either by car or on foot to check for injured.

The Department of Natural Resources brought in a swamp vehicle to assist in searching a swamp area south of the truck stop for any victims that might have been carried there by the force of the tornado. A detail of men was sent to the William Kie residence, which could be seen from the road and had been wiped out, to check for injured. Reddy and Coy kept me posted by radio of any problems.

Twisted frame of a truck in foreground and wreckage of Berkshire Truck Plaza in background show power of tornado.

Berkshire Herald photos

This command post was a great help in centralizing all questions and filtering out unnecessary excitement. The state police, coordinated by Trooper Alan P. Chamberland, also used this command post. They were instrumental in maintaining order and keeping out unauthorized persons who may have been trying to help but were adding to the confusion.

Precautionary lines laid

During the search of the fuel pump area, I ordered a truck from the West Stockbridge Fire Department to lay a line from a nearby water source to supply the hose lines I wanted stretched to flush the area and the charged lines held in readiness in the event of an outbreak of fire. West Stockbridge laid the line and supplied its Engine 2, which laid the lines for flushing the heavy fuel spills from vehicles and also the fuel oil coming from ruptured pipes where the pumps were located.

After the area was thoroughly searched, I released all but three of the ambulances and the medical team from Berkshire Medical Center. The area was then roped off to keep it as secure as possible.

Any valuables found were turned over to the state police. The area was sectioned off and the damaged cars were towed to one spot and damaged trailer trucks to another.

As debris was moved during searching, it was taken to a cleared area so it would not be searched again. The Lee Fire Company and one engine from Richmond were ordered to return to quarters. The Lenox Fire Company was notified of these companies returning and the status of apparatus in the surrounding communities.

Inspection from copter

At this time, a helicopter was made available and I made an overall inspection of the tornado area. This storm began in New York State near the Berkshire Industrial Farm and moved in a southwesterly direction across the Berkshires, through Richmond and West Stockbridge. Proceeding south, it hit the Silver Birch Camp and dissipated near the Alford line.

The swath of the storm was about 600 to 1000 feet wide and did a tremendous amount of damage to woodlands. Many roads were blocked by felled trees, but they were quickly cleared by town road crews, as I was concerned about access to homes in the event of fire.

Upon my return to the truck stop, James McDermott of West Stockbridge informed me by radio that he had set up a separate command post in the West Stockbridge fire station and told me what equipment he had available for securing the area for the night. I ordered generators and lights brought to the area and enough rope to rope off the entire area. It had been decided to end the search of the debris about 7 p.m., rope off the area and light it up so it could be watched. The swamp and all surrounding areas had been thoroughly searched for victims by the DNR swamp vehicle.

Apparatus released

About 7 p.m., I released all vehicles except two engines from West Stockbridge. Richmond went back to its station to get a new crew that returned for the night. All out-of-town aid was released as the state police set up a protective curtain for the night. Berkshire County sheriff’s men also assisted in securing the area for the night.

At this time I notified KCH 470 that all companies with the exception of the ones previously mentioned, were released and that West Stockbridge would be using our radio frequency during the night to assist in securing the area.

The fire radio system was vital to the orderly search and rescue required in this incident. Success in maintaining order was due to the fine work of KCH 470 and Pittsfield fire alarm. We were in communication with the hospitals at all times, and the chief of the Berkshire County Medical Team used our radio for messages. All towns without fire protection were constantly covered by other towns. This incident underscored the fact that there has to be a command post manned by responsible people.

During the afternoon of the tornado, the American Red Cross and the Salvation Army not only cared for those who needed their help, but they also provided food and drink for the rescue workers.

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