Firefighters are among the first to respond after a disaster — but what if they've experienced the disaster themselves?
For four members of the Cole Country Fire Protection District, that wasn't a question.
"I couldn't get out of my house, or out of my drive, because of the trees. So all my stuff was stuck in my garage," CCFPD Deputy Chief Steve Barnes said, describing the scene at his home on Route D after the May 22 tornado hit. "One of our board members lives down the road heard me on the radio telling everybody it had touched down right at our place there, and he said, 'Do you need a ride?' and I said, 'Yes, I need to get to the fire station.'"
Barnes and other Fire Protection District personnel quickly set up a command post at the fire station on Monticello Road. Of the district's roughly 50 firefighters, many volunteers, 30, came in to work that night. With help from seven other area fire districts, the response in the county was 75 strong.
"We covered 21 miles from the city limits to (Route) AA out off of (U.S.) 54. We searched every house, every building, in that 21 miles with help from the Sheriff's Department," Barnes said.
Several Cole County firefighters have the same last name — Braun — but the tragedy that struck their family business didn't keep them from taking care of their community first.
"When the tones came in, I took probably 10 minutes to get a job bag — extra clothes, phone chargers, things that you're going to need," Capt. Alan Braun said. " A tornado means we're going to be there for hours."
And they were in for the long haul despite the destruction of much of Donnie Braun & Sons Auto Repair and Braun Storage just off U.S. 54, where the tornado touched down.
"I don't know if I even barely made it to the fire station and I had a call: 'Have you seen your place?' 'Nope.' 'It's demolished; it's gone,'" Alan Braun said. "And I'm like, 'OK. I can't go over there and wish it back, so I'm going to stay doing what I'm doing.'"
His brother, Lt. Gary Braun — also a firefighter — did what he could in the dark to take care of the business.
"He was dealing with people down here all night," Alan Braun said. "As soon as the tornado hit, people started showing up here because they wanted to go through their stuff and see if it was damaged."
Lt. Justin Braun, Alan's son, lives at the fire station on Monticello Road and responded immediately, checking on residents along Heritage Highway and Route CC.
"The first initial call that came out, I took the first one out there, and the whole road was shut down — from the house that I went to, right behind it, the whole road was shut down with power lines hanging across it," Justin Braun said. "We checked that house, shut the propane off, cleared the scene, got back to the station, and it was like that all night: the second you get back, they were sending us out to another one. It was nonstop for three to four hours."
Alan Braun added: "You just keep going 'til it's all said and done, and then you start all over again. Once you can actually see and get to places, then you do it all again."
In the daylight of May 23, the Brauns surveyed the catastrophic damage to their businesses and began working to clean it up. All totaled, they worked about 30 hours straight.
"Ain't the first time," Alan Braun quipped.
Other Cole County firefighters dispatched again that morning for a secondary search.
"We actually put hands on every house in the county. They went to the house, knocked on the doors, talked to people," Barnes said. "It was a lot of teamwork, and a lot of good guys out there doing this."
Barnes said he and Chief Galen Hammann had discussed drafting a disaster plan numerous times before May 22. What they had discussed worked, and now they're putting it all on paper.
"This was probably the biggest thing we've ever had hit our county," Barnes said.
Other "Heroes of the Storm"
There were nearly 20 individuals and organizations who received plaques Saturday, Aug. 27, 2019, at a ceremony recognizing them as "Heroes of the Storm" for their actions during the May 22 tornado. Read their stories: