911 dispatchers recall Washington IL tornado

She was the voice many victims heard when they called 911 as a tornado touched down in Washington, Illinois.
December 4, 2013 3:43:54 PM PST
She was the voice many victims heard when they called 911 as a tornado touched down in Washington, Illinois.

Abby Hobbs talked about the difficult task of trying to send help and comfort to tornado victims, some who called as their homes were being destroyed.

The Tazewell-Pekin 911 center has never had a day like it. Calls nonstop.

Caller: "Our house is gone."
911: "OK. Is anyone injured? OK. Alright. They're aware. They're on the way."

911: "Hello. Can I help you?"
Caller: "Yes. Our house has been decimated by a tornado. "
911: "Ok. Where are you at?"

For Hobbs and her colleagues in the small 911 center, the job was to get the vital information, and above all, stay calm in the face of calls from people who are in shock, panicked, in some cases injured.

"The one that stands out most in my mind is the man who said that his apartment was being torn down around him as he was on the phone with me, and he's crying and all I could say is, 'What's your address?' And, 'Is anybody hurt? The ambulance is in the way,' and go on to the next 911 call," Hobbs said.

That may have been the shared feeling in the room, but the 911 operators - veterans all - knew that their job was to help and to offer reassurance - as best they could to people - some of whom have lost their homes and others who can't find loved ones

911: "OK. If I can get through to Washington I will have them check on her, OK?"
Caller: "I appreciate you very much."
911 "No problem. You're welcome. Bye-bye."
Caller: "Have a good day."

With Washington's 911 center knocked out, all of its calls were routed to Tazwell-Pekin, where there would typically be three to four telecommunicators working a Sunday. But on tornado day it was twice that because coworkers came in without being asked.

"It gave me chills when I came in here and seen everybody. It was awesome to see the teamwork in this room," said Tammie Conover.

Within five hours, they took more than 900 calls, many from people experiencing the worst day of their lives, and the 911 tapes make clear that the people in the call center never lost their cool.

"That's what makes a good operator. You keep your cool. I mean, that's what we get paid to do," Hobbs said.

In the midst of non-stop, stress-filled calls about the tornado, came the usual smattering of complaint calls about the neighbor's barking dog, and other calls from people who just wanted to talk. To one such call came the 911 operator's polite response, "Sorry hon, gonna have to let you go now. We have people trapped in basements. Please call us back later."