CLEVELAND, BRADLEY COUNTY (WRCB) -- The April tornadoes taught the men and women of Bradley County Emergency Management Services many things, but overall it showed why their job is so important, and why training is so crucial.
Despite the rain, April 27, 2011 began like a normal day on the job for Troy Spence. But, as the director of Bradley County EMS, he would be tested like never before.
As the storms grew more severe, Spence decides schools should close early. Seven tornadoes would later rip through his county taking nine lives almost instantly, and saving others would not be easy.
Spence says, "We were having trouble responding because the roads were blocked, power lines were down, and trees were across the road."
Overworked and overwhelmed, Spence worked with the county mayor to launch an "all hands on deck" plan.
There was plenty of help for a "normal storm", but this would be far from normal.
Spence says, "At one point we had about 48 calls for people trapped in their houses and no one to respond any of them."
At one point someone was dialing 911 every 18 seconds.
Bradley County paramedic Joe Thomason says, "You can't prepare for seven tornadoes in one county, over the course of a 24-hour period."
That 24 hour period included three rounds of horror.
During round two, Thomason came face-to-face with the 130 mile-per hour winds of an EF-3 tornado.
"Everything was pitch black," he says. "We had people that just walked out of the woods covered in mud and didn't know they were there until they walked up to us."
As night turned to dawn the nightmare became clear.
And then, as the days turned to weeks, and weeks turned to months, the scars remained.
Thomason says, "We see it on a day-to-day basis of driving in between there and there were a lot of people whose homes were totally destroyed and they are not going to rebuild."
Moore than 500 homes were damaged as crews worked though the night to save lives and rescue those in danger.
Emergency services worked almost 3,000 hours of overtime
A storm like this will change even the most seasoned emergency veteran.
Thomason says, "I still have the effect that you don't look at storms the same way as you looked at them before."
And for Spence the nagging question lingers: "What if the worst comes again?"
Spence says, "There is always in the back of my mind where I think, are we really prepared?"
To answer that he says lessons from April 27th always replay.
They check emergency systems often, update storm maps, and train.
While those in uniform rushed into danger, everyday heroes were all around us.
"The heroes are really the public," Thomason says. "They did a tremendous job of helping their neighbor."
Spence says, "After reviewing what we accomplished, in the amount of time we accomplished that, I would be hypocritical if I didn't say that we did a really good job."
Since the storms, Bradley County has installed the long-term recovery team which aims to get the storm ravaged areas back on track no matter how long it takes.