Originally published - November 27, 2009
Updated - December 11, 2009
What was expected to be a festive family gathering on Thanksgiving weekend turned into a nightmare during the afternoon hours on Sunday, November 27, 1994. Sixteen family members and friends had gathered at the Germantown, TN home of landscape architect Walter V. Person, Jr. for a family reunion. Person's home was located on Gotten Way in the Dogwood Grove subdivision, which his family had moved into only two weeks earlier.
Outside, environmental conditions were primed as temperatures ahead of a cold front were in the 70s and wind shear existed throughout the atmosphere. These conditions came together to support the formation of tornadoes earlier in the day across portions of central AR, including Sharpe and Van Buren Counties, as well as a small twister in West Memphis and another in Crockett County, TN that resulted in the death of a 75-year-old woman.
By the time the storms reached southeastern Shelby County, conditions came together to spawn a major tornado that blasted through upper-middle class suburban Germantown neighborhoods of Dogwood Grove, Farmington East, and the Woodlands of Forest Hills. The area, shown in the map below, is roughly bounded by Dogwood Road on the north, Houston Levee on the east and Johnson Road on the west, including the immediate area around Houston High School. Though there was damage to the southwest and northeast of this area, these subdivisions received the brunt of the storm.
The tornado that struck Germantown on that day touched down about 3:15pm in the southern part of Germantown and moved northeast (as depicted on the track below) for 16 miles before lifting just north of I-40 near the Shelby/Fayette County line. The city of Germantown was the most densely populated area it traveled through, though it also went through the eastern portion of the county (east of Cordova and near Eads). The maximum width of the twister was about 200 yards, over a tenth of a mile, and it was rated an F-3 with maximum wind between 158-206 mph.
Personal property damage was extensive, including roofs caved in, second stories collapsed, homes lifted off their foundations, windows broken, fences blown away, and trees downed, in addition to water damage from the heavy rain that accompanied the storm. In terms of structural damage, 28 homes were destroyed and 300 others damaged, with damage estimates totaling $25-30 million. There was significant structural damage to the front of Grace Evangelical Church on Dogwood Road and roof damage to Houston High School, located across the street from Grace church. Houston H.S. ended up closing until after the Christmas break for repairs. Students at Germantown High School made room to share their facilities with their rivals from Houston H.S. for the last few weeks of the fall semester. There were also 30 utility poles downed and two mobile homes in Fayette County were destroyed just before the tornado lifted. To view damage photos taken mostly by (at the time) Battalion Chief Edgar Babian with the Germantown Fire Department, follow this link.
Besides property damage, three people lost their lives in the Person home, including Walter Person, his brother, and his 11-year-old son, while another 25 were injured along the storm's path in Germantown. In fact, the damage to Person's Gotten Way home was so extensive that rescue dogs, helicopter-mounted infrared cameras, search probes, and heavy equipment had to be used to locate the bodies of the dead under all of the rubble. Two people were not recovered until the following morning. A command post was set up at Houston Middle School, west on Dogwood Road from Houston High, to coordinate efforts by various agencies, who all “just showed up” without an official request going out and no initial coordination effort, according to acting Fire Chief Dennis Wolf. Amateur video of search-and-rescue efforts conducted by members Tennessee Task Force One and the Germantown Fire Department, can be found here, or watch below.
Shortly after the tornado struck, Shelby County Sheriff's Reserve Officer Art B. was called out to the area as part of a group of officers assigned to patrol and secure the neighborhood from possible looters and gawkers. Art remembers vividly the extensive damage, specifically recalling a 2x4 piece of wood "impaled diagonally with surgical precision" through a car door. The car itself was untouched and still sitting in the carport!
Curt B., a young man in his mid-twenties at the time, recalled "leaving church on Sunday morning with a feeling that the warm, humid November day just wasn't right." He continues:
"My afternoon job at the pharmacy led me to deliver medications to the Hickory Hill area, south of Germantown. As I travelled, I followed a dark, ominous, rotating cloud from the south near Olive Branch as it crossed the border into TN. I never saw the actual tornado, but [later] saw numerous emergency vehicles speeding down Poplar towards Germantown. It was confirmed shortly thereafter that a tornado had touched down off Houston Levee and Dogwood. I was forced off of Poplar to drive back home via Collierville Arlington Rd. and upon nearing Fisherville, it was obvious the tornado had crossed the road here as several large transformer towers were completely bent to the ground.
"Back then, the internet was not as widespread, so word really didn't spread of the massive destruction and fatalities until the news at 10pm. My mother was a teacher at ECS, which met at Grace Evangelical Church which was heavily damaged. Had this been a school day, the tragedy could have been even worse as the playground would have been full of children waiting on their ride home from school. I recollect my mom telling me that the playground equipment was never found."
Shelby County Mayor Jim Rout, who toured the destruction that evening, was quoted as saying, "[the area] looks like it's been blown up by some kind of explosion. [...] It looks like Sarajevo or one of those places that's in the news, where you see tremendous, tremendous damage."
In an interview with Germantown Fire officials, who were the first responders on the scene that day, Fire Chief Wolf recalled responding to a call for aid at the Person home without knowing the extent of the damage he would encounter. Initially, Chief Wolf could not reach the scene due to downed power lines across Dogwood Road. A Shelby County Engine Company cut the lines, allowing him and other responders to reach the scene, which was much more widespread than initially reported. Chief Wolf also specifically recalled one home in which the first story had collapsed and the second story was resting on it. The residents of the home were escaping through a second-story dormer window that was now just feet off the ground.
Then-Assistant Fire Chief John Selberg was aware of the Tornado Warning and said he put his family in the closet as the storm approached, before also responding to the scene. Asst. Chief Selberg was placed in charge of operations at the Person home and used the home next door, which was not as severely damaged, as a triage center for those who were injured. He also relayed a story in which a nearby home, which was for sale at the time, was being inspected by a potential buyer. The buyers (a couple) had left their daughter in the car in the driveway next door while they visited the home for sale. The tornado tore through the neighborhood while they were in the sale home and their daughter was in the car – there simply was not time to get back to the car before the storm hit. Fortunately, all parties were okay.
Interestingly enough, the tornado sirens in Germantown were activated by an alert firefighter at the southernmost fire station in the city as he recalled seeing a funnel go directly over the station and activated the warning sirens.
In response to the tragedy, there are several “positives” that came about as a result, according to Assistant Chief Selberg. Mutual aid efforts between various departments from surrounding municipalities is now much better coordinated and policy and procedures help ensure that all responding personnel are able to provide the maximum effort to aid in the situation. The lack of coordination and communication on that day resulted in some efforts being duplicated and other opportunities being missed, which prevented the best use of all responders. A training program for mutual aid, “Incident Management Teams,” has been developed, which teaches emergency responders the right way to accomplish their mission in mutual aid scenarios.
In addition, many of the responders, particularly from GFD, were a part of TN-TF1, which was a fledgling urban search-and-rescue (SAR) unit at the time. Now, TN-TF1 is one of the premier urban SAR units in the country and have responded to such incidents as the 9/11 attack on the Pentagon, multiple hurricanes (including Katrina and Ike), and the space shuttle disaster. Asst. Chief Selberg is the Task Force Leader for TN-TF1.
The Germantown tornado served as a wake-up call 15 years ago, and stands as a reminder still today, that severe weather and tornadoes can form at any time in the Mid-South. The Thanksgiving weekend tornado is often cited when meteorologists educate the public that November is secondary severe weather season in our region. Of course, since then several other storms have also served as reminders that metropolitan areas are not immune from Mother Nature's wrath. We remember today the lives of those individuals who perished in the storm and pray that the circumstances of their passing serve as constant reminders that we should all be prepared for, and heed the warnings of, the possibility of severe weather. We are also very grateful for the service and heroism of all first responders.
http://www.midsouthtornadoes.msstate.edu - NWS Memphis Tornado Database
http://www.commercialappeal.com/ - CA archives
A special thank you also to those who provided personal accounts and photos for this writing, especially officials at the Germantown Fire Department.