DNR Officers honored for lifesaving efforts during Gaylord tornado

Two environmental investigations conservation officers received DNR Law Enforcement Division awards during the Michigan Natural Resources Commission’s February meeting in Lansing for their swift, effective response to the Gaylord tornado.

Lt. Vence Woods, environmental investigations supervisor, was presented with a Distinguished Service Award and a Lifesaving Award. Det. Chris Bowen, environmental investigations conservation officer, received a Distinguished Service Award.

Michigan DNR conservation officers, left to right: Capt. Jen Wolf, Det. Chris Bowen, Lt. Vence Woods, Chief Dave Shaw.

On May 20, 2022, at approximately 3:45 p.m., the community of Gaylord was hit by an EF-3 tornado. Several Michigan DNR conservation officers were among the first emergency responders to arrive at the scene.

Woods was working in the Gaylord-based Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy office, located at 2100 M-32, when he saw the tornado touch down near the building. After ensuring his office was secure, he gathered emergency response supplies and followed the tornado’s path in a detective unit vehicle to the Nottingham Forest Mobile Home Park, located a half-mile east of the EGLE office.

The mobile home park was one of the hardest hit areas, with building frames and axles of trailers, roofs and other heavy items hanging from trees. Woods coordinated with the first emergency responders who arrived and risked his own life by searching the dangerous scene.

“In 35 years of law enforcement, that was the most volatile and dangerous place I have seen,” Woods said of the destroyed mobile home park. “When I arrived, the natural gas was spewing as loud as a jet plane. It was all you could taste and smell.”

During the response, Woods located and removed a trapped woman who was in critical condition, unable to breathe and with numerous injuries. Woods worked with others to strap the woman to a kitchen chair and carry her out of the debris and a considerable distance to a staged ambulance in a safer area.

Woods returned to the scene and searched numerous mounds of debris for people with injuries and worked to clear the scene.

Bowen immediately responded to the hardest hit areas in Gaylord and was personally responsible for assisting 15 people with emergencies and provided medical treatment to at least 11 others.

At Culver’s, 1397 W. Main St., Bowen provided medical care to two women, one with a large piece of glass in her head, the other with multiple serious cuts caused by glass that exploded from the restaurant windows.

He assisted at Hobby Lobby, 1425 W. Main St., helping other emergency responders dig through debris for trapped people, while damaged gas, water and electrical lines posed serious risk.

At the Nottingham mobile home park, Woods witnessed Bowen risk his own life, searching through debris and assisting someone who needed to retrieve medication from their destroyed mobile home.

When additional emergency personnel arrived to assist, Woods and Bowen provided details of where they searched, people they located, and those who may be missing.

Both conservation officers used their knowledge of the area and emergency response training to assist local authorities in the days following the tornado.

Woods has worked in law enforcement since 1987. Both he and Bowen have served as conservation officers since 2000.

Environmental investigation conservation officers are funded by the Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy.

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