Twister!

Michael Garlock reports on the devastation caused by tornadoes that tore through a South Dakota town.


Even before a tornado leveled the small town of Spencer, SD, on May 30, 1998, the mechanisms necessary to jump start search and rescue operations had been initiated on three fronts. Photo by Dave Sietsema/The Daily Republic The path of the twister is plain when viewed from the...


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"We used our radios to contact the sheriff, who tried to contact Spencer to let them know they were going to be hit. We were on the east side of Spencer when the tornado hit. The sheriff and his deputies were on the west side of town."

Sherman and his men ran for their lives.

"We were stuck between two tornados, trying to get away," he continued. "One hit Spencer, the other turned south. We headed south on a township gravel road, trying to get away. We managed to get around the tornado and came back into Spencer, which by that time had already been hit. Everything had been flattened. We could look from one corner of the town to the other and see nothing but flattened buildings. We were awestruck."

It was confirmed that two tornadoes had passed through Spencer. Meteorologist Scott Mundt of KELO-TV in Sioux Falls explained, "They're multiple-vorticity tornadoes. Some-times they're called sisters. They're tornadoes of different strengths. We have videos that actually show the second tornado."

11_98_twister3.jpg
Photo by Chuck Blomberg/The Daily Republic
Firefighters from around the area worked together to move debris in Spencer early Sunday morning. About 300 workers were on the scene at the time.

Five other smaller tornadoes occurred in the vicinity on that same Saturday night; the one that Sherman and his men encountered might have been one of them.

Sunset came to Spencer at 9 P.M., 16 minutes after the tornado hit. Twilight cast an eerie spell over the carnage. Warning sirens had failed to sound because the storm had knocked out the electricity. Telephone lines were also out of commission.

Chief Charles Roberts of the all-volunteer Spencer Fire Department (19 men and two women) said, "Most people saw it coming and headed for basements. We had no power. There was a surge that knocked out 90% of the power. There was no electricity. It had been taken out on a feeder line. There were no sparks and no fires. Nothing was burning, but gas was leaking. There was a lot of rain.

"The Salem Fire Department and the sheriff were on the backside of the storm. The sheriff's cars used their radios to call for help. Out here aid just comes in. You make one call and everybody responds.

"All of our firefighters were busy digging themselves and their neighbors out. None of our firefighters were injured. Their first priority was to help themselves and their families. I was planning to do some work in my gas station that night, but got an invitation to go out to dinner. Had I been in my gas station, which was leveled, I would have been one of the fatalities."

The chief, who has been on the job for nine years, offered examples of the twister's power.

"We had a 3,635-gallon tanker that was sucked dry. Our 1,200-gallon pumper was also sucked dry. We figure the tornado sucked the water out of the dump valves. There was a lot of flying debris and some of it must have hit the valves. One truck was moved 200 feet away from the fire hall. The 50,000-gallon water tank was also sucked dry. We couldn't find a splash mark anywhere."

Roberts said his fire department used to "cover for townships, two on McCook County and two in Hanson County. It is an area of about 120 square miles, mostly rural. We had four trucks - a tanker, a city pumper, a rural pumper and a grass rig. Our station was 30 by 50 feet. We lost all of our bunker gear, our radios, everything. Two of our trucks are junk, two might be fixable."

Governor Forced Off The Road

Governor Bill Janklow also had an uncomfortable brush with the storm. As he headed west from his home east of Sioux Falls, without a state police escort, wind and heavy rain forced him into the shoulder of Interstate 90. His vehicle wound up in a ditch near a rolled pickup truck. After he made sure the occupants of the truck were OK, he continued on his way. He also made telephone calls to the Department of Corrections, South Dakota Highway Patrol and National Guard.

11_98_twister4.jpg
Photo by Korrie Wenzel/The Daily Republic
The scene that awaited residents and emergency crews alike when the sun finally rose Sunday morning was almost unrealistic, like this pickup that was literally wrapped around a tree near the Spencer business district.

Unnerved by their near miss, Sherman and his men nevertheless immediately went to work.