RICHMOND, VA—This summer marks the 20th anniversary of the Tri-Cities twister, one of the worst modern-day tornadoes to strike Central Virginia.
For those who survived, it's a disaster they'll never forget. The damage and devastation forever changed the community and the fire chief who was in charge of the rescue and recovery.
"The sky changed, and it started raining really hard," Dee Watkins said of the day the tornado struck. "I guess in about two minutes, I heard that proverbial freight train sound everyone talks about with a tornado."
Dee Watkins was one of the dozens of people inside a Colonial Height's Wal-Mart on August 6, 1993.
She had stopped in to check on a friend's children, who were getting their pictures taken at the studio.
"I ducked down underneath a table where Wal-Mart had all their information—it was card table—everything got quiet," said Watkins.
"I got out from underneath the table. I didn't see anyone, [I thought] ‘Oh my God, am I the only one that survived this'?"
The day the tornado struck, 8News cameras captured the destruction. Packing winds around 175 miles per hour, the storm carved a path right through the middle of the store.
"It was real scary; there were wires hanging down," said Watkins. "t was tough to know where to walk."
Once Watkins made it outside of the store, she found the windows had all been blown out of her car, and the parking lot was a scene of mass chaos as crews tried to treat the victims.
Watkins says she went from victim to first responder within minutes, aiding fellow survivors who were more hurt than she was.
"The first patient we had, they brought out on a big metal Coca-Cola sign," Watkins said.
She rode in the ambulance with several victims, and it was at that point that she realized she had injuries to her head and needed to go home and cleanup.
"I had insulation all in my clothes...the phone rings....so i had to go home."
Watkins spent the rest of the day back at the site, coordinating rescue efforts with localities across the region.
In total, three people died inside the store, and 120 others were hurt.
Watkins says if she had to do it all over again, she is not sure she would have returned to the site.
"It was not a good thing to do...when you're a victim...you shouldn't be doing that...."
Nearly 20 years later, Watkins says the events of that day are never very far from her mind.
"It was several years before I didn't get terribly frightened every time there was a tornado warning or watch in this area."
Through it all, she says she is most proud of her community for coming together to do what needed to be done.
"It was a bad situation...it was handled really well."
Copyright 2013 by Young Broadcasting of Richmond
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