Tornado hits, Guardsman responds

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. David Speicher
  • 175th Wing Public Affairs
A Maryland Air National Guardsman survived a tornado and then went into first responder mode to help others while camping. Airman 1st Class John McCulloch, a crew chief assigned to the 175th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron at Warfield Air National Guard Base, was camping with his girlfriend, her family and friends of her family at Cherrystone Family Camping Resort in Cape Charles, Virginia, July 24.   

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      McCulloch heard an alert for severe weather on his cell phone at 8:25 a.m. "I was asleep and looked at (the alert) and didn't think that much of it," he said.

The tornado hit their location about 5 minutes later. "I heard my girlfriend's parents, who were outside the trailer. They came running in and my girlfriend's father held the door shut. They said a storm was coming in. Even though it was 8:30 in the morning, it was dark outside like it was nighttime. I saw a grey wall of water. It was really dark grey," he said. Even though they were in a large camper, the tornado moved it about ten feet and broke both axles.

Then it started to hail - marble sized up to baseball size which broke the camper's windows. Small tree limbs also pierced the trailer walls.

"I told my girlfriend and her mom to get down and stay away from the windows. The camper is built light and not made to withstand a tornado," he said.

After the tornado passed, McCulloch went to check on his friends. He found their camper rolled on its side by the wind.

A second blast of high winds hit causing him to retreat to his camper. This time McCulloch saw three foot wide trees "snapping like toothpicks." When the wind subsided and there was just heavy rain, they figured the tornado had passed and he could venture out to help others.

McCulloch lives in Franklin County, Pennsylvania, where he is a full-time deputy sheriff.

"I went from victim mode to first responder. I went to my vehicle and gathered a small first aid/trauma kit that I keep in there," he said. He also put on his sheriff's badge so he could be identified as emergency personnel.

"Myself and my girlfriend's dad went to our camping buddies' camper and checked on their injuries," he said. "Once I knew everyone in our group was alright, I heard screams from other parts of the campground."

"I started running to the closest scream I could hear. At that point, a Hispanic family started tugging on my sleeve and pointing to a camp site 50 yards away.

When McCulloch arrived, three family members in a tent were trapped under a large pine tree that had been knocked over by the high winds. The mother and father were deceased, but their son was still struggling to stay alive. "I moved on to their 14 year old son. He had massive head trauma. He was unconscious. He was still breathing and had a pulse. I tapped his foot and talked to him," he said.

The sheriff department trained him to provide basic first aid care, but not as an emergency medical technician or paramedic. All he could do was stay and reassure him until other medical professionals arrived. Emergency vehicles were delayed entering the campground because trees in the heavily wooded area had fallen and blocked the road.

The boy died several weeks later in a hospital.

For the next three to four hours, he tried to help as many people he could. "I went from camper to camper, campsite to campsite doing basic first aid." There were about 1,500 campers there that day. He directed the injured to a triage area and the rest to a separate area for accountability.

The next day he met the Governor of Virginia, Terry McAuliffe, who was there to survey the damage. McAuliffe wanted to recognize McCulloch for his actions, but he resisted. McCulloch didn't want recognition.

Instead McAuliffe sent a letter to the Governor of Pennsylvania, Tom Corbett, stating how McCulloch helped after the tornado. McCulloch received a letter from each governor showing their appreciation for his heroic efforts.

"Most of the training I utilized was from the sheriff's department," McCulloch said. "The discipline and the ability to keep a cool head were definitely from my military training."