The harrowing moment when storm chasing turned to search and rescue

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The small town of Rolling Fork, Mississippi, is still picking up the pieces from the catastrophic EF4 tornado that impacted the area on Friday - a process that was able to begin just moments after impact with the help of storm chasers and first responders.

Aaron Rigsby was one of several storm chasers stationed around Mississippi and Louisiana on Friday afternoon as atmospheric conditions put the area at high risk for severe weather. As the afternoon turned to evening, storms slowly developed and remained disorganized, prompting Rigsby to travel into eastern Mississippi from north-central Louisiana.

"I had continued east to Mississippi, so I could get across the river to keep up with the storm," Rigsby told AccuWeather on Monday morning.

After entering Mississippi, Rigsby parked just southwest of Rolling Fork, watching the disorganized thunderstorm escalate rapidly.

"It went from kind of a disorganized thunderstorm to a cone tornado developing to a massive violent wedge tornado in the matter of probably 20 minutes," Rigsby recounted.

As soon as the tornado was on the ground, Rigsby submitted the report to the National Weather Service (NWS) right before the life-threatening twister wiped out cell towers. The reports helped the NWS issue a warning for a confirmed tornado, which was eventually upgraded to a tornado emergency -- the highest alert level for a tornado that can be issued.

"I got that out just before cell towers went down from the tornado," Rigsby said. "With storm chasing, minutes and seconds count, so even though it had such a high impact on this town, and people were unfortunately still injured, somebody could've seen that ... it could've potentially saved their lives. That's always priority number one. Film later, get the people warned."

When the tornado continued to approach the town, Rigsby positioned himself just south of the tornado, where he could see through the lightning flashes, which gave him a visual that the tornado was moving left to right and wouldn't impact his location.

"Unfortunately, after it crossed my location, it looked like it was going to pass just north of town," Rigsby explained.

Initially, Rigsby could not tell the severity of the damage, but once he began to drive on the northbound highway, the scope of the destruction to the town became apparent.

"When I was going by town, I couldn't visually see too much of the damage until I flipped on my lights, that's when I saw the debarked trees, the completely dismantled homes," Rigsby recalled. "I immediately came into town, put my car in park and jumped out of my car. There was just a scream for help at 360 degrees all around me. I just went to the nearest ones I could find, and I started performing search and rescue."

Reed Timmer was another one of the storm chasers that came into Rolling Fork after the tornado touched down, also recalling the hectic scene when he and another chaser arrived at the scene.

"We were immediately overwhelmed, because there are dogs that are appearing from the rubble, you could hear people that were screaming in the rubble; it's pitch black, driving rain, windy," Timmer said. "You can't hear or see anything."

Once in Rolling Fork, Rigsby aided in immediate search and relief efforts by pulling multiple people from the rubble and flagging down a medic. Rigsby worked with other chasers to free an elderly woman trapped under her home - and he also carried a little girl to safety.

"It was pouring rain, it was lightning everywhere, [but] I didn't even think twice about it," he said. When holding onto the little girl, who reminded Rigsby of his own niece, the storm chaser was able to tell the girl that the tornado had passed and that another one wasn't coming for the town.

"I think that provides just some relief to people because they're in such a state of shock that they don't know if there's another one coming up behind it ... it's able to calm people down so they can collect themselves and we can extract them from these homes as best as we can," Rigsby said.

Timmer also jumped into search and rescue mode right away, finding two people sitting on the side of the road with potentially life-threatening injuries. He said that his "best use of resources" at that time was transporting the two to the closest hospital, a 45-minute drive that Timmer said felt like it "took six hours."

Due to Rolling Fork being in a remote area, there were few river crossings for emergency personnel to get to the area. "A lot of them were coming up from Vicksburg, Mississippi, which is 45 minutes to the south," explained Rigsby.

Rigsby, along with other storm chasers, performed search and rescue operations during that time before emergency personnel were able to reach the town and begin blocking off roads and continuing search and rescue efforts. While his adrenaline was pumping during operations, Rigsby's 12 years of chasing experience allowed for controlled emotions, which he says helps traumatized locals.

"You want to keep them calm," Rigsby said. "I asked them their name, how long they've been there, just basic questions away from that kind of situation. When I initially pull up and I see all this damage, you have your shock factor ... [but] there's a job that needs [to be] done, these people are relying on us, it's time to go to work. Even if we can't physically help somebody, I'm able to steer medics in the direction of somebody that does need help."

Timmer echoed that sentiment, saying that chasers should "help out the best that you can within your skill set."

"You know that you have to end the chase," Timmer said. "You feel completely overwhelmed, looking around and not sure where to devote your efforts when everything is totally destroyed ... you know that there are storm chasers in the area too, your friends; you're worried about them and that they may have been injured too. It's totally overwhelming and a terrible experience to witness it, but it's even worse being in the path of those storms and being impacted by them directly, so you just have to collect your thoughts."

After he concluded search and rescue efforts and informed his sister that he was uninjured, Rigsby immediately went to console his fellow chasers at the scene.

Storm chaser Aaron Rigsby, seen here in a 2014 chase, was at the center of the tornado destruction in Rolling Fork, Mississippi, on March 24, helping to pull survivors from the rubble. (Instagram/Aaron Rigsby)

"I just kind of gave them hugs, after seeing such devastation and people's lives turned upside down, it makes you realize how fragile life can be and how much these tornadoes can affect people," he said.

Before departing Rolling Fork, Rigsby spoke with residents about the situation, something he called a "positive experience" despite the decimation that lay around them.

"Sometimes it can be a very fragile subject, when you have a camera wanting to interview people ... but when people knew what I was doing and my intentions, they were more than happy to talk about it and spread the word. Create some kind of positivity to get more people to come down there and help."

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