Rescuers still live with memories from Airport Road tornado

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HUNTSVILLE, Ala. - Last week, marked the 30th anniversary of the Airport Road tornado in Huntsville. It was the deadliest tornado in the city's history. Even though three decades have passed, some emergency workers and rescuers still live with what they saw that day.

Scott Starrett was one of the first people to spot the deadly storm. He was a HEMSI paramedic. When he saw something, he got on the radio and reported, “Med-Com 10-3, we've got what appears to be a tornado on the ground out toward the arsenal."

When we sat down for an interview, I played that audio from November 15, 1989, for him. It carried him back to that day. “I have chills when you play that back,” he said, “Because I remember I was sitting at Governor’s Drive overpass and we were looking out towards the airport and I saw a flash of lightning, and I said, what was that? I had never seen it before.”

Those flashes were power transformers blowing. “And then another flash hit, and I was like, that’s a tornado,” Scott said, “And then there was another flash and we could see it on the horizon. We could see exactly where it was going.”

Scott went straight to Airport Road. “People were milling around with just the look of desperation on their face. It was just something very surreal,” he recalls, “And from there it was just kind of, you just go do what you do.”

His focus turned to treating the injured and searching for victims. “It was like a war zone. Something I’ll never forget,” he said.

Neither will Jay Spencer. “It’s one of those things I don’t think about it daily, but I've certainly thought about it off and on over the years,” he told me. Jay worked as a Huntsville police officer. He was downtown at the jail when the tornado hit but immediately headed to Airport Road.

“I had been an EMT here for years, worked the rescue squad, worked the ambulance,” he said, “So there is a part of me that’s already thinking about the injuries and how we handle that.”

He still remembers coordinating the rescue of two people from an overturned car in a drainage ditch. “It was a Pontiac Firebird if I remember right, that had flipped upside down with a girl in the passenger seat belted in it hanging by a seat belt,” he said, “And her brother had been in the back seat but he was up on his stomach on the ground with the car sitting on his back.” He had to come up with a plan.

“They were alive, but they were hurting,” he added. Had they not acted as quickly as they did, the girl could have drowned. “Thank goodness nothing went bad,” he said, “I visited them in the hospital and even a few months later at their parent’s business and everybody was fine.”

Everyone involved in the rescue and recovery after the tornado has a story. They also have memories, they'd rather forget. “Being some of the first people there and seeing it first hand,” Scott said, “I probably can't ever shake that.”

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