Two environmental investigations conservation officers received DNR Law Enforcement Division awards during the Michigan Natural Resources Commission’s February meeting for their response to the Gaylord tornado.
Lt. Vence Woods, an environmental investigations supervisor, received a Distinguished Service Award and a Lifesaving Award. and Det. Chris Bowen, an environmental investigations conservation officer, received a Distinguished Service Award.
The awards are in honor of their response to the Gaylord Tornado.
On May 20, 2022, 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, when he saw the tornado touch down near the building. After ensuring his office was secure, he grabbed emergency response supplies and followed the tornado’s path 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 worked with the other emergency first responders 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.”
While there, Woods located and removed a trapped woman who was in critical condition. The woman could not breathe and had many injuries. Woods helped others strap the woman to a kitchen chair and carry her out of the debris to an ambulance.
Woods continued to search debris for people with injuries and worked to clear the scene.
Bowen 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, Bowen provided medical care to people injured by glass. One woman had a large piece of glass in her head, the other had multiple cuts by glass that exploded from the restaurant windows.
Bowen also helped other emergency responders dig through debris at Hobby Lobby. The area was full of damaged gas, water and electrical lines.
At the Nottingham mobile home park, Woods witnessed Bowen risk his own life, to search through debris to help someone who needed medication from their destroyed mobile home.
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.