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First responders reflect on recovery efforts during 1997 Jarrell tornado

When tragedy strikes, first responders spring into action. EMS workers and volunteer civilians reflected on the recovery efforts made on May 27, 1997.

JARRELL, Texas — The death and devastation caused by an F-5 tornado in Jarrell, Texas, 25 years ago left first responders overwhelmed.

Kevin Krienke, a commander at Williamson County EMS and a long-time Cedar Park resident, first arrived on scene after the Jarrell tornado touched down. He said basic communication was a problem.

"Cell phones weren't working, the paging system was down and it was very hard to communicate," Krienke said. 

At the time, Krienke was working for the Georgetown Fire Department. He was originally off-duty and received page saying there was a storm coming and the department needed people to come in to work. 

Krienke said, in 1997, if a tornado hit one of the cell phone towers and took it out, it hurt the ability of law enforcement and EMS to communicate. 

"When a storm hits like that, everybody gets on their cell phone, they start using cellular data. And once they do that, it overwhelms the bandwidth of the towers. And then none of us can get any of our equipment to work," Krienke said.

   

Krienke said even 25 years later, Jarrell still has the same connectivity issues. 

"Shortly after the tornado hit, we lost all cell phones and pager reception. So, we didn't really know anything about what happened," Krienke said. "I showed up, and still nobody ever really said 'tornado.' They just said, 'There's a storm that hit.'"  

The EMS responder said the tornado had taken out essentially everything. The area that was once a neighborhood now looked like a muddy field. 

"My first thought was like, 'Well, I'm glad this tornado hit an area where there weren't a whole lot of houses.' I just didn't know that it had taken out the asphalt, the house, everything," Krienke said. 

Credit: Kevin Krienke
What was left of one neighborhood after a F5 tornado swept through Jarrell.

Miles away, Constable Gary Griffin was helping people along Interstate 35, where they were surrounded by funnel clouds.

"Big ones over there. There was another over there, was another over there. They were all scared. I was scared," Griffin said.

Eventually, Griffin arrived in Jarrell, where his fright turned to sorrow. The search for survivors quickly turned into recovery efforts and he emotionally recalled one discovery.

"She was a mom holding onto her son. They were just holding each other, and they died that way," Griffin said. 

Emergency workers weren't the only ones trying to help that day. A father-and-son duo, Billy and Danny Williams, sprang into action as well. But the civilian searchers weren't prepared for what they volunteered for.

Credit: Kevin Krienke

"I've never seen anything as devastating as that. I didn't even bother to take any pulses because they were gone. There was nothing anyone could do for them," Billy Williams said.

"I expected to find something and we didn't find anything. Just wreckage and bodies," Danny Williams said.

"I think the people out there probably took the best shelter available. I think they ran to an interior closet, an interior room, a hallway. They shut all the doors to the hallway. Folks, if you've seen what's left of those houses out there, it wouldn't have mattered," a spokesperson stated in a 1997 Jarrell press conference.

Credit: Kevin Krienke

A quarter of a century later, those who answered the call to help the people of Jarrell know they did all they could for those who called Double Creek Estates home.

"I know some people that live here and when storms build up, they still get nervous because of those old times," Krienke said. "They remember the tornado, and it still sends chills down their back thinking about it."

For all of KVUE's coverage honoring the anniversary of the 1997 Jarrell tornado, visit KVUE.com/Jarrell. Watch our full "Remembering Jarrell: 25 Years Later" special report below:

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