Bart Fremow saw things he hopes to never see again: a baby blanket 80 feet up in a tree; pieces of bodies in a field and in trees a mile from flattened homes; a Christmas stocking with a little girl’s name on it; a baby doll; a piece of a kitchen sink; family pictures; hundreds of dead birds and squirrels.
It’s been 13 days since the EF-4 tornado blew through Putnam County near Cookeville on Tuesday morning, March 3, and killed 19 people and injured 88. Fremow still chokes up as he talks about what he saw and felt.
Packing winds estimated at 175 miles per hour, the tornado cut an 8-mile swath through Putnam County. It struck at about 2 a.m. By 11 a.m. Fremow and the other seven members of Knox County Rescue’s “Heavy/Technical Rescue” team were there, along with units from the Knoxville Fire Department, to do what they could to help.
“We got off I-40 and were driving in through some beautiful hills and fields and came over this little hill and all of a sudden there it was in front of us,” he said. “Tears started rolling down my face. Houses were gone and some were just piles of rubble. These people kissed their kids good night and went to bed and some didn’t wake up and others woke up to destroyed homes and their kids and others were missing or dead. It’s a load to process.”
He described the scene as having “an eerie-like silence, people working and looking for bodies, family members and volunteers side by side. I watched and thought that we have a lot more good in this world than bad.”
Fremow, 46, has been a KCR volunteer for five years. He is a rescue tech and carries certifications in heavy/technical rescue, extractions, confined space rescue and swift water rescue. He’s a native of Louisville, Kentucky, and now lives in Louisville, Tennessee. He worked for two years with the Greenback Rescue Squad and 20 years with the Red Cross Disaster Team. His full-time job is locating underground utilities and doing surveys for government agencies and land developers.
He and others saw one thing that was a clear visual clue about the tornado’s power. “We found a two of clubs playing card in good shape embedded into the trunk of a small tree behind a house,” he said. “It pierced the bark and was in it like someone had used a knife to slice the tree and put the card in it. Incredible.”
Fremow had an experience in 1992 in Louisville (Kentucky) that changed his life. He witnessed a wrong-way driver on an interstate hitting a car in front of him head-on. Four people were killed.
“I ran up to the cars to help and I was helpless,” he said. That led him into emergency services work as a volunteer, learning advanced CPR and first aid.
Like after that accident, he says he is “decompressing” after the fact from the tornado.
“I’ll never forget that wreck, and I never thought I’d see what I saw with this tornado. Your soul does not get numb. I’m an emotional guy, and it gets to you. It was horrible, and when I talk about it even now I cry.”
Editor’s Note: This is part of a weekly series – Our Town Heroes – highlighting Knoxville’s emergency-service professionals. Watch for this feature every Monday on KnoxTNToday, and if you have suggestions about a first responder/emergency-services professional we need to feature, please email Tom King or call him at 865-659-3562.