By Annie Howard
Vestavia Hills Fire Chief James St. John clearly remembers the morning of April 27, 2011.
He met with the mayor at about 6 a.m. in a city hall conference room to plan for tornadoes sweeping through the city. They set two priorities: helping the injured and clearing the roadways.
“The tornado that hit Vestavia Hills hit very early in the morning, and we began receiving calls for people that had some minor injuries,” St. John said. “And then trees down on the roadway, trees down on houses. Pretty much every resource we had was consumed up until about three that afternoon.”
That day, when multiple tornadoes ripped through the state and killed almost 250 people, including one in Cahaba Heights, was one for the record books.
“It was a career event,” St. John said.
On April 22, the Vestavia Hills Sunrise Rotary Club is dedicating its seventh annual First Responders Celebration to the men and women who served on that day.
The Rotary was working on the event before the April 27 storms, but afterward, the work took on deeper meaning.
“That was a major inspiration to really thank our first responders for all that they do for us,” said Andrew Tunnell, the current president of Sunrise Rotary Club.
That day, first responders hit the streets in the early morning hours, clearing debris and downed trees.
“We were trying to open roadways so we could get to people as they needed us,” St. John said. But it wasn’t just the Fire Department at work.
“The entire community was out cutting trees out of the roadways,” he said.
Into the afternoon, the Fire Department stayed ready for action.
The early morning tornado had knocked out power and, as neighborhoods came back online, fire danger spiked.
“What we know from historical experiences is that, once the storm goes through like that and a lot of people lose power, when the power comes back on, it starts fires,” St. John said.
By midafternoon, a greater threat was on the horizon.
“At about three or four, we got warning that there was another tornado headed our way,” St. John said. “We pulled everyone back in because we didn’t know where that was headed, and then got back out as we could in the community.”
Once Vestavia was stabilized, its first responders lent a hand to nearby communities hit hard by the tornadoes that followed in the afternoon and joined the search-and-rescue operations over the following days.
St. John said the Rotary Club’s event to recognize first responders each year is “heartwarming.”
“It’s a great opportunity for our members to go out and interact with members of the public in a non-emergency environment,” he said. “When someone doesn’t have a problem, we can go out and see members of the community.”
Vestavia Hills Police Chief Dan Rary also praised the event.
“It let the officers, especially young ones, know that they’re appreciated and that the public’s behind them,” he said. “And it kind of helps remember that day, and the help we got from the public in clearing the streets of Cahaba Heights and rendering aid to the victims.”
This year’s celebration will feature a shrimp boil, live music by The Casters and outdoor games. Kids can enjoy a cotton candy machine along with hot dogs, a game truck and corn hole. David Lamb will emcee the event.
First responders and their families can enjoy the event free of charge. But the Rotary Club also is planning a more long-term gift – equipment.
Proceeds from attendance and sponsor fees will go toward items requested by the fire and police departments. Last year, the Rotary gifted the departments one drone each to aid in search-and-rescue operations and locate fire hot spots. This year, the departments hope for night vision equipment and a hose roller, a device for faster hose coiling.
Proceeds may also benefit “We the People,” an accomplished Vestavia Hills High debate team.
Admission to the event, which lasts from 3 to 6 p.m., is $10 per person.
For more information, visit vestaviasunriserotary.com.