By Jamie Thompson
FireRescue1 News Editor
AP Photo/Phil Coale
A construction worker begins clearing debris Saturday left by the tornado.
ATLANTA — The Atlanta Fire Department had little warning of the first tornado to hit the city's downtown in recorded history — eight minutes to be exact.
But the department's protocol swung quickly into action Friday when word came through from the weather service. Fire companies across the city were radioed to pull out of stations and sound their air horns and sirens to warn residents of the approaching danger.
"That was essentially the only warning residents had," said Atlanta Fire Chief Kelvin Cochran.
About 20 minutes after the tornado touched down, many downtown areas were reduced to rubble but amazingly there were no fatalities.
In the end, about 30 people were left injured as the storm smashed hundreds of skyscraper windows, blew furniture and luggage out of hotel rooms, crumbled part of an apartment building and rattled a packed sports arena, according to The Associated Press.
After the tornado passed, dispatch was quickly inundated with calls, according to Chief Cochran.
"We had fire companies responding in all of the affected areas," he said. "It was a miracle no one was killed."
Among those injured was a firefighter, though, who hurt his ankle while sifting through bricks and rubble during search and rescue efforts.
As the scale of the disaster became clear, neighboring fire departments were called upon for assistance and the Georgia mutual aid system was activated.
As with any natural catastrophe that comes with little warning, Chief Cochran said one of the biggest challenges was to ensure companies remained disciplined and methodical in their response.
"Once dispatched to a specific area, there can be a tendency to see if anybody else needs help nearby," he said. "That can cause chaos but after about 45 minutes we had it under control and established the incident command system and then the national incident management system."
During the hours that followed the tornado, firefighters checked thousands of hotel rooms, loft apartments and homes around the downtown area.
"These primary and secondary searches were carried out to make sure no one was still injured or trapped, so it was quite an extensive operation from a life safety standpoint," Chief Cochran said.
"The fact that there were no deaths shows it was a good test of our emergency response capabilities."