By Russell Hixson
STILLWATER, Okla. —
Helping is in Zach Harris’ blood. And despite receiving one of the most difficult phone calls of his life, the veteran LifeNet paramedic and volunteer Carney firefighter continued rescuing tornado victims from their homes when he knew he no longer had one to go back to.
Harris and his family trekked one mile over from their Carney residence to his mother’s when they learned of the impending weather on Sunday. He was dressed in his paramedic uniform just in case he was called to respond.
“We’d done it a million times,” Harris said of the precautionary trip to his mother’s, where there is a storm shelter.
But this time it was different. They watched through shelter doors as a tornado got closer and closer. They shut the doors and waited 10 minutes for the noise to stop. Harris’ fire radio wailed with tones as Carney had sustained a direct hit. He hopped in his truck and took off, knowing there would be victims. Working with firefighters, they freed a man trapped under an entertainment center, a stuck resident in a wheel chair and cut trees to clear access roads. About 30 minutes into rescue operations, Harris received a frantic call from his fiancé.
“There’s nothing left,” she told him, sobbing.
His home, one of the last to get hit, was completely leveled. It took his breath away.
But there were victims who needed help and Harris worked for more than three hours, treating injuries and helping free trapped victims until the area was saturated with first responders.
“I like to help people, that’s my job,” Harris said.
He was recognized weeks ago as LifeNet’s outstanding employee with the Star of Life award for his work in the community. That award, along with nearly all his possessions, is destroyed or missing. Harris is staying at a hotel in Stillwater as he begins to piece his life back together. Rhonda Inlow, a LifeNet EMT, lost her home to tornadoes in Shawnee and, like Harris, continued to work despite the loss.
“I don’t know if I have the words to say how proud I am of them for helping the communities in their time of loss — tremendous people,” said LifeNet Director of Operations Michael Authement.
Other LifeNet paramedics responded to Carney, transporting the injured to area hospitals. But this did not prepare them for what they would see later that week.
Authement and six other paramedics soon found themselves in Moore after a massive EF-5 tornado obliterated thousands of structures in the city on Monday. The State Department of Health requested they send units to respond as casualties were expected.
As the two ambulances drove closer to Moore, they noticed black, mushy masses of housing insulation littering the roads. It was nothing compared to what they saw upon arrival.
“It was total destruction,” Authement said. “There were cars that looked like they had been hit 10 times by an 18-wheeler.”
They were first stationed at the Warren Movie Theater, one of the few structures left standing in the tornado’s path, to treat patients. Authement recalled being sent out to retrieve a disoriented, shocked woman wandering through a neighborhood that was no more.
The team then linked up with a Payne County task force with responders from Ripley and Ingalls. They spent most of the night systematically picking through destroyed homes for anyone dead or alive with a cadaver dog.
Paramedic Matthew Webb said he saw halved dryers, bent baseball bats and family photos. Particularly difficult was finding children’s toys and clothes.
“It was difficult. You just wish you could have done more,” he said.
They found no one. The team returned to Stillwater on Tuesday, physically and emotionally exhausted.