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Nineteen-year-old firefighter Andrew Stark watched as dark, swirling storm clouds rushed at him as he stood outside Milton Fire Station No. 2 on Friday afternoon. A number of volunteers preparing for a planned ALS fundraiser set for the following day had been in earlier but had scattered for their homes when the storm warnings sounded. Now Stark manned the station alone.
“I knew I couldn’t make it to Station No. 1 (located at the top of Milton hill) so I waited here and I took my hand-held radio and I saw the tornadoes coming from the west,” he said when meeting with members of the media a short time later. “I heard (Fire Chief Jason Long) on the radio and I saw the tornadoes and I knew he was having trouble seeing them.”
Stark, who was standing outside, observed “the tornado come up and down about 10 times—it jumped” as it swept toward him from the west. “There was a lot of debris flying. The tornado itself really wasn’t that big. It was pretty compact but it had a swirling tail around it. I’ve witnessed a couple of tornadoes but nothing that was coming right at me.”
He saw the twister miss a house directly across U.S. 421 from the fire station and saw the funnel take another jump into the air.
“As soon as it went up I knew I had to get out of there so I went into the station,” he said. Stark recalled “all those trainings in elementary school to get as low as you could and get in the center of the building, so I got in the bathroom and dived underneath the sink. I was just praying that I would be alive. I just prayed the whole time as soon as I went in the building and I’m still here. I’m still shaking. When the tornado hit I could literally feel the whole building rise up. It was probably no more than a minute ... I could hear a real loud freight train noise, which that’s what they always talk about. As soon as it hit I could hear a big, huge explosion as the building was ripped apart. I waited until I could no longer hear it then I came out and saw that the building was just gone. After a minute it was gone and then it started hailing—huge hail. I was so thankful that I was still here.”
The area of the building where Stark took refuge was still somewhat intact but the remainder of the structure and the majority of its contents was scattered for thousands of yards and into a woods behind the station. Parked not more than six feet away from the station was Andrew’s red pickup truck intact but bearing only one scratch as evidence of one historic moment in time in the life of a very brave young Trimble County man.