Bryan County Fire and Emergency Services Battalion Chief Matt Fleming said Friday that up until April 5 he had dealt with “just about everything” but a tornado during his decade as a firefighter and first responder.
That changed on April 5 when a tornado estimated as either a high EF3 or low EF4 ripped through portions of North Bryan, killing one person and injuring several others while destroying homes and buildings and causing millions of dollars in damage.
Fleming was on duty at the time, and like many worked nearly around the clock on recovery efforts in the aftermath of a natural disaster that began for Fleming as he met with an EMS crew around 5 p.m. April 5 in Pembroke and a call came out over the radio that a storm was brewing.
“Dispatch notified everybody that the National Weather Service had called and advised that there was a bad weather situation,” Fleming said.
That notification was followed shortly afterward by a report a woman thought her trailer had been struck by a tornado, and Fleming and Pembroke Fire Chief Peter Waters responded to the call.
The woman’s claim was unfounded, Fleming said. The tornado was real.
“We left that scene and headed back into Pembroke, and as I was coming into Pembroke, I noticed that on the west side of Pembroke the sky was spinning,” Fleming said. “I sat there for a minute, and approximately two minutes later I actually watched it hit the ground and then start running through Pembroke.”
Fleming said he reported the tornado to dispatchers, waited until it passed and then drove into the city, where he saw the initial damage and that the tornado was leaving Pembroke.
“The direction the tornado was going, I knew it was going into the county,” Fleming said.
As Waters took charge in Pembroke, Fleming followed the twister up Highway 119. Then he heard by radio reports from volunteer firefighters who said they’d had phone calls that a tornado was forming near Hendrix Park.
Fleming turned down Wilma Edwards Road “and as soon as I got in the area just past Page Farms I could see there was a large tornado on the ground.”
It had gotten bigger.
“When it originally dropped down in Pembroke it wasn’t very big,” Fleming said. “When I turned on Wilma Edwards Road I could see it had grown from what it was when it hit over there.”
He could also tell the tornado was doing serious damage.
“When it started hitting stuff, the cloud around the base of the tornado actually widened out and got darker,” he said. “So it was either hitting trees or hitting something else, because there were large chunks flying up in the air.”
At the same time, dispatchers confirmed a tornado had touched down and there were reports people were trapped in homes in Park Place subdivision, right next to Hendrix Park.
Fleming was the initial first arriver in Park Place. He described the subdivision as “complete and total devastation.”
Fleming said he radioed for more first responders, which took some time to arrive because the storm had dropped trees and power lines over roads.
In the meantime, Park Place residents began helping Fleming take care of those who were hurt until emergency personnel could get there.
And they did, arriving from Bulloch County, and Effingham County, and “multiple agencies that decided to come,” said Fleming, who then moved on to take charge of rescue efforts in Homestead Drive, another area hit hard by the tornado. First responders from Rincon, Effingham County, Savannah and Pooler also came to help, Fleming remembered.
“We cleared everybody and got the injured out, and from then on we just continued the operation,” he said.
Like many ranging from Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp to a number of county officials, Fleming said the storm could’ve been much worse.
“From the destruction and length of the path … this could’ve been a lot worse than it was,” he said. “A lot of people are very, very lucky. I am thankful it happened at the time of day it did because a lot of people who live in this community work outside of the community and have to drive in. If this had happened an hour and a half or two hours later, there would’ve been more people on the roads, more people home. There are so many things that could’ve made this a lot worse than it was.”