With only a backpack, a hammock and a desire to “pay forward” the support Western Massachusetts received in the months following the June 1 tornado, Wilbraham’s Jason Dimitropolis recently traveled to the tornado ravaged community of Henryville, IN. The firefighter and paramedic returned on March 10 after a week of helping victims begin a long recovery process. Photos of his trip can be viewed here.
We caught up with Dimitropolis and a personal account of his trip follows:
“Upon arriving in Louisville, I was greeted by a friend, of a friend, of a friend....whom I've never met. He gave me a ride from the airport to Henryville, which is about twenty miles north. I find it amazing that this gentleman took time out of his day and from his family to pick me up and haul me around at ten p.m. When we got into Henryville it was dark, but the damage was unimaginable. Almost everything was completely leveled. I hate to downplay the storms that affected our area back in June, but they really pale in comparison to things here.
“Luckily, the town’s fire department was unharmed by the storm. I spent Monday night at the fire department, sorting supplies and equipment, and helping care for the people who would occasionally wander in. Tuesday, I started to pound the pavement and go from house to house. Realize that when I say ‘house,’ I really mean pile of rubble. Sometimes, there weren't even piles because things were so scattered around by the winds.
“After several hours of hard work out in the town, I took up a role back at the fire dept. as fuel master for the operations under way. I was charged with receiving and distributing deliveries of gasoline and diesel fuel for the affected areas. Towns people were also able to fill containers with fuel for their generators and equipment. I met alot of very nice and appreciative folks while at that post. Later in the afternoon, I set out on foot for a neighboring town, Marysville. While there, I did more work alongside people trying to collect belongings and clean up damage. I also distributed some of the nearly five hundred dollars worth of gift cards and cash that I collected prior to leaving home.
“When it became dark, I made the hike back to Henryville. I think it took about niney minutes to go between towns. Monday night, I was able to set up camp and sleep in a garage back at the fire department. Today, my day started at about 5:30am. That's when things start to come alive and the machines and people start clambering. I did some more work with the residents and right now, I'm having a quick bite to eat while tapping out this message.
“One funny thing is that through talking with, and helping people, I've become sort of known throughout the town here. I can't tell you how many times I've heard ‘Hey, you must be Massachusetts’ from people I've never met before. It's just a really good feeling to put a smile on someone's face, at a time when they need it most.
“The remainder of my trip was basically a duplication of the first few days. Work started at sun up, so as to make the most of my short stay out there. I would split my time between working with the fire department, and working on my own, out in the town. As the days went on, things seemed to operate a bit more smoothly overall. Meals were being brought in and distributed by not only the Red Cross, but also from small mom and pop type restaurants as well as several large chains. Residents of nearby towns would also drop off non-perishable items and toiletries. The number of people being let in to the town was still being regulated by the Indiana State Police, who had around-the-clock check points at each road that led into town. This was to be sure that anyone who didn't need to be there, wasn't, as there were a hand full of incidents involving the looting of peoples property. Those, however, were swiftly resolved by the police.
“A small army of volunteers from many different organizations also descended upon the town, and I'm certain that Henryville's population increased at least three times its normal size while I was there. I met people from every state that surrounds Indiana and even a retired firefighter from the FDNY who, like myself, had simply up and left his home in New York so that he could lend a hand.
“The final day of my trip was a dreary one. The weather, which was in the mid sixties and sunny every other day, turned a bit cooler, and the rain was unrelenting. No one was willing to let mother nature put a damper on our efforts, though. The work carried on, we were just a bit muddier. That day also held the funeral of one of Henryville residents who had perished in the storm. I believe that almost every person from that town turned out to mourn this man. In a town of about two thousand people, everyone knows one another. If there was anyone not in the long procession, they were lining the streets that it traveled. The firefighters, police, and emergency medical technicians also lined the streets, with bowed heads and folded hands. The compassion and fellowship was awe-inspiring.
“As my final hours in Henryville wound down, I began to have people seeking me out to say goodbye and express their appreciation for my efforts. I was told countless times to return for a visit, which I will one day do. I then said my goodbyes to the members of the fire department. I won't deny that my eyes swelled up a bit as they all gathered for my departure. The fire service really is a brotherhood, regardless of where you are from, and they were more welcoming and supportive of me than I can convey. When it was time for me to go, my ride to the airport was provided by the fire captain, who tasked one of his men with driving me down to Kentucky. They joked that if I missed my flight, it wouldn't be the worst thing in the world, as I could just stay a bit longer. I didn't miss it, however, and my journey came to an end as I headed home. I will always hold tight my memories from Henryville.
“It was an unforgettable experience, in an amazing place, with some of the nicest people I have ever met.”
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About the authors
Students in Steve Fox's Investigative Journalism & the Web class at UMass-Amherst have teamed up with the Globe to take a close-up look at the painful process of rebuilding from the June 2011 tornadoes that killed four and devastated communities in the Springfield area. Their work will also appear in the Boston Globe. Steve joined the journalism faculty at UMass-Amherst in 2007 and has 25 years of experience as an editor and reporter for print and online publications, including 10 as an editor at The Washington Post's award-winning website.