Storm at Station 9

By Tammy Keith

With eyes on the gathering storm, firefighters at Station 9 in west Little Rock got their chainsaws and equipment ready in case their community needed help.

Minutes later, they ran for cover in the office and listened as a tornado tore apart their building.

Shawn Fisher, who was filling in as the station’s battalion chief on March 31, said the other men were outside looking at the sky, and one was videoing when the power went off. Fisher told them to take shelter immediately.

Photos by Mike Kemp

“I heard one of them say ‘debris.’ I saw what looked like a storm cloud of crows, just circling,” Fisher said. “Once I got everybody inside my office…, my thoughts were [to] get as small as I could. I was wondering about how everybody else was positioned. The last person basically shut the door and dove under my desk. I thought about my family. It crossed my mind what was going to impale me or crush me.

“When people say it sounds like a train, it sounds like a train. There’s no better way to put it. The change in pressure was so drastic; your ears pop. It got really intense. You could hear in the engine bay items being thrown across and chaos happening in there,” Fisher said.

Capt. Ben Hammond recalled Fisher’s urgent warning. “No sooner than we got in that room, the tornado hit our building. The sounds were of the building coming apart, ceiling tiles, the heaviest of wind blowing that you can imagine hearing, change in the atmospheric pressure. We ducked down. There was a desk in there. There was a window in the room; you could see the trees blowing outside and feel this building coming apart. Before you could comprehend what was going on, it was gone, 40 seconds maybe.”

Following the powerful tornado that hit Fire Station 9 in west Little Rock on March 31, nine firefighters jumped into action. As a sign of determination, a firefighter raises the Stars and Stripes and the Arkansas flag.

“When it got silent, we knew it was over,” Fisher said. “I asked if everybody was accounted for and OK, and I got eight yeses. We walked out of my office to the engine bay to the smell of natural gas; the water lines were busted; … you could see daylight. That’s when we knew we had to go to work, and we were pretty lucky.”

The EF3 tornado, categorized as “severe,” had ripped a path through Pulaski County, destroying apartments, homes and businesses. Tornadoes killed five people in Arkansas on March 31, one in North Little Rock and four in Wynne. A beam from the interior of a church next door impaled the side of the North Shackleford Road station in the exact spot some firefighters had been standing seconds earlier, Hammond said. The beam has been cut into three sections and will be used to make a kitchen table for the new station, he said. A 20-foot-tall glass fire station bay door was blown 80 yards south into a building, and the other was too damaged to open. The men used a pickup and chains to pull the front doors off the station to get a trapped fire truck out. Every firefighter’s personal vehicle in the parking lot was destroyed, Hammond said.

“Before the rain even stopped, [Fire Chief Delphone Hubbard] was at our fire station checking on us, starting the process of what we do now,” he said.

Hubbard said he was in southwest Little Rock when he got a call asking him if it was true that Station 9 had been hit.

“Immediately, I’m headed in that direction, lights and sirens,” he said. As he raced toward his men, he saw homes without roofs or walls, debris all over the roads, trees uprooted and power lines down. He had to drive over a curb to reach the station.

“My guys are running out. I didn’t realize it until later, they’ve just been hit. I was riding into the storm,” Hubbard said. “They said, ‘Chief, what are you doing here? Are you OK?’ I wanted to lay eyes on all my guys.”

Hammond said the fire station was the first place where many neighbors thought to seek shelter after their homes were hit. “People were emerging from where they were hiding,” he said. “They just knew to come to the station. They’re confused, don’t know what to do, where to go. Some people had their pets with them, on a leash, not on a leash. They migrated right to our fire station. Within 15 minutes of the tornado, there were 40 people surrounding our firehouse.”

A symbol of survival and solidarity, six of nine firefighters got matching tattoos which include their station mascot, a figure of Popeye, and incorporated the tornado in smoke coming out of his pipe and the date 3-31-23 on Popeye’s forearm.

Hubbard recalled the surreal scene, too.

“It was an unbelievable sight of citizens, residents walking the street with suitcases, almost like you were at the airport, walking with no destination in mind, just what they could grab. I directed them to checkpoints established to render any type of medical aid they might need,” he said.

However, the firefighters’ worst fears weren’t realized. Hammond said he couldn’t believe there were no deaths in the area based on the destruction.“We just knew it; we just knew what we were fixing to face was people hurt, people dead, people possibly trapped,” he said. “It is absolutely a true miracle that that’s the situation we found ourselves in. The hand of God watched over everybody in that area.”

Hammond and Hubbard said it helped that the storm hit at about 2:30 in the afternoon and that severe weather had been predicted.

Fisher said that despite the shambles Station 9 was in, the men were ready to help others. He immediately organized the crew. Three firefighters stayed at the station; the others put on gear, grabbed a few tools and split into teams of two to canvass.

 “I was so super proud of the men,” Hubbard said. “The personnel at Station 9, immediately, immediately, after standing in the eye of that storm and hunkering down went to work.” Hubbard went into area neighborhoods with the firefighters to see what the residents’ needs were and to check properties. “It was disorienting because street signs and landmarks were destroyed. I couldn’t tell anyone where I was,” he said.

Fisher said he saw 30 to 40 off-duty firefighters helping, and there were others. “The Little Rock Police Department did a great job. I noticed them within minutes on the city streets. City maintenance crews, street department and everything, dozers, backhoes, dump trucks doing everything they could to get to me, to be able to get out of the station. It did take everybody. The nine of us have gotten a fair amount of attention, but there were so many people who played such critical roles and so many other people affected. Those guys did such a tremendous job of putting others first,” he said.

“We relied on our brothers and sisters around the city,” Hammond said. “It was amazing to see all our fire department members coming to our aid.”

Hubbard said neighboring fire departments sent personnel to work at stations in Little Rock to continue answering calls while the city’s firefighters responded to the disaster.

Hammond said the tight-knit group had to process their emotions afterward. They have been relocated to the same firehouse upon their request. Six of the nine firefighters got matching tattoos “so we can forever remember this day,” he said. They took their station mascot, a figure of Popeye, and incorporated the tornado in smoke coming out of his pipe and the date 3-31-23 on Popeye’s forearm.

Not that any of them could ever forget the experience. Hubbard, a firefighter veteran, said he has worked many disasters during his career, from flooding and a high-rise fire to line-of-duty deaths.

The tornado was his first, and he hopes his last.

“If someone had said, ‘Hey, we’re having a tornado next week,’ I would have said, ‘Are we ready?’ This was our test. We were ready and met that challenge,” Hubbard said. “It was a coordinated effort. It was great to see we can work together during times of really bad incidents.”