COOKEVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Moments after a tornado tore through his quiet Tennessee neighborhood, Darrell Jennings walked out his front door and heard screaming.
The house next door — and many others — had been leveled to its foundations. Somehow the Jennings house suffered only a few broken windows.
It quickly became a shelter for those who were suddenly left with nothing. The next-door neighbors, who had miraculously survived, straggled over. Others joined them.
“It’s like we were a beacon,” Amy Jennings said an interview Wednesday. “We had a house full of muddy people in their pajamas. A lot of little babies were screaming. Our teenage kids were amazing. They went into action. They held those kids and got them calm.”
The monstrous tornado tore a 2-mile-long (3.2-kilometer-long) path through Putnam County early Tuesday, killing 18 people, including five children under 13. Another 88 were injured, some critically. The statewide death toll was 24, and authorities warned it could rise as crews examined debris piles.
A tornado reaching EF-3 stage with winds up to 165 mph (266 kmh) had barreled eastward along a 50-mile (80 kilometer) path from Nashville, where it killed two people and wrecked homes and businesses. It continued into nearby Wilson County, which saw three deaths, and into Smith County. Benton County, to the west of Nashville, also had one storm-related fatality.
But no place saw more destruction than pockets of Putnam County, where the Jennings home and a few others left standing became impromptu support centers for neighbors left homeless.
Darrell Jennings, a trained EMT and firefighter, had awakened his wife, Amy, and their three kids and hurried them into a hallway just before the tornado struck. It was over in seconds.
When he ventured outside, Jennings expected to see a few downed trees and some scattered debris. He found total devastation.
“There were no houses left,” he said.
Sitting on their couch Wednesday afternoon, with destruction just outside their door, Darrell and Amy Jennings teared up as they recalled the immediate aftermath. Three of the children sheltering in their home had head injuries, Darrell Jennings said. With no power or cellphone service, he used his radio to call for help.
“I told them, ‘Everything is destroyed around us. Send us everything you’ve got.’ I’ve probably had about 30 firefighters tell me that’s how they woke up.”
Because their road was impassible, first responders set up a base at a nearby church. Those who could walk made their way from the Jennings’ house through the darkness, stumbling over the remains of their homes and belongings in pouring rain and sleet.
“We gave away all our shoes, because everyone was barefoot,” Amy Jennings said. “One little girl said, ‘I don’t want to leave the house that stayed up.'”
Some carried the children in their arms. Another neighbor drove his truck through yards and over fences to carry an older neighbor to the church. With the nearest neighbors safe, Darrell Jennings began searching the rubble for survivors.
He said he pulled several people out. One of those he tried to help was a small girl who didn’t survive.
“All the lives lost, it’s unbelievable, unfathomable. It was hard to sleep last night, thinking of them and their loss,” he said.
In his 32 years as a volunteer EMT and firefighter, Jennings said he had been to about 10 different tornado sites, and “this is about the worst I’ve ever seen.”
The neighborhood was warm and sunny after the storm, filled with the sound of chainsaws as hundreds of volunteers worked to clear fallen trees and sort debris into piles.
The Jennings home remained a support center. A neighbor’s outbuilding lay on its side in the their driveway, someone’s cat was holed up in their bathroom, and cases of bottled water and snacks for neighbors and volunteers kept filling their porch.
The Jennings’ children, two high school seniors and an eighth grader, sprang into action, Amy Jennings said: “They’re learning that they have the power to do good and help others, even in the midst of our crisis.”
Several neighbors said they aren’t going to rebuild because the memories are too terrible. Amy Jennings said she’s been helping people recover what they can, meanwhile. The personal items she’s found include stuffed animals that remained miraculously dry under a mattress and a statue of a husband and wife that looked totally unscathed.
“The little things I salvage from their past can help them build their future,” she said.