Emergency personnel remember Leap Day tornado - WSIL-TV 3 Southern Illinois

Emergency personnel remember Leap Day tornado

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HARRISBURG, Ill. -- There are some events that people remember exactly where they were and what they were doing when it happened. For Harrisburg locals, it's the 2012 Leap Day tornado. 

Fire Chief John Gunning says he was on the way to the station before knowing that the storm had touched down, "We got about halfway here, they started dropping out tones, so we knew it was on the ground."

Gunning, who was a captain at that time, and a crew of five others had their first rescues at homes near the Harrisburg Medical Center. 

"It was nothing but a pile of rubble and it had blown over everywhere, and we found her in a pantry," he recalls. "We had one house that was tore apart, and the lady was stuck in the bath tub." 

Gunning didn't realize the storm's strength, which had winds reaching 180 miles per hour, until he saw the complete devastation by Walmart. To him, this meant one thing-- more rescues. 

"Rescuing the kids and rescuing the elderly out, which that's our job. That’s what we do as a profession," Gunning explains. "Then there’s just those vivid memories you don’t want to think about that are still there, you just don’t talk about it anymore." 

They took the injured victims to the Harrisburg Medical Center where staff had already activated the hospital's disaster plan. 

Neil Atkins, Director of Emergency Room Nursing Service, says he was just an emergency room technician still in nursing school when the tornado struck. He was called in to help with patients who had cuts, bruises, and scrapes. 

"I was caring for patients, assisting for transports, assisting with vital signs, and blood pressures," Atkins remembers. 

Staff had their own challenges since the hospital's medical floor and psychiatric unit were also damaged by the tornado. "We had to evacuate that wing. We had to transfer and or discharge the patients to a different facility," he explains. 

However, something that will stick in Atkins' mind is seeing his co-worker find out a nurse they worked with, was one of the eight killed. 

"I do remember being in the vicinity when she was told that she died in her apartment," Atkins says. "Just watching the emotional feelings and struggle, it was really difficult." 

Both Gunning and Atkins say they'll also always remember how the community came together, even months after the storm, for recovery efforts. Both the fire station and hospital have done their part to honor those who passed away. Firefighters dedicated one of their engines and have a plaque with the victims names on it. The hospital also has an outside bench area with two plaques and holds a day of silence each year on the anniversary.

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