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 were talking on the radio to where the sheriff and other rescue units, our search and rescue Suburban and a Cook County ambulance were setting up a command post. Members of the Spencer Fire Department were digging out and some were helping us to find injured people. We put them into the ambulance."

Members of other paid and volunteer fire departments who had heard the calls for help on their radios began to respond. They arrived at times throughout the night from Bridgewater (14 miles to the south), Canistota (25 miles to the southeast), Emery (10 miles to the south), Howard (20 miles to the north), Hurley (65 miles to the southeast), Lennox (70 miles to the southeast), Marion (45 miles to the southeast), Mitchell (25 miles to the west), Montrose (24 miles to the east), Parker (65 miles to the southeast), Plankington (47 miles to the west), Salem (10 miles to the east), Sioux Falls (45 miles to the east), Stickney (54 miles to the southwest) and White Lake (60 miles to the west). The Cook County search and rescue team and members of the sheriff's department were also on the scene. Eventually, 500 to 600 firefighters and EMS and search and rescue personnel would converge on Spencer.

"The rain stopped not too long after the tornado went through, maybe 20 or 30 minutes," Sherman said. "The sky was clear. We still had a little bit of daylight to work with for the first 10 to 15 minutes. There was a lot of confusion. Two or three guys were situation commanders. It was hard to tell what part of town you were in. All of the street signs were down.

"Most of the injured (we dealt with) got out by themselves, except for one guy who had both of his legs broken. He was sitting in a basement and had to be lifted out. Most of the victims were elderly. Half were male, half were female. We never felt that the storm was going to double back on us.

11_98_twister5.jpg
Photo by Korrie Wenzel/The Daily Republic
An American flag was left draped over a downed tree near the fallen water tower when the sun rose Sunday morning.

"Four of us gathered bodies for the coroner. The bodies were taken to Salem where he have a coroner. We also helped out at the command center and worked with the other departments on the scene. Our crew left at 6 or 6:30 Sunday evening."

Chief Don Hill of the Sioux Falls Fire Department said, "Our communications center got a call approximately 10 P.M. We had people on the road by 10:15. We responded with two rescue crews, seven people. We didn't know how bad it was. We had been monitoring the weather reports. Our communications center told me that people were trapped in basements. We have no mutual aid with Spencer, it's outside of our area.

"Our crews got there at approximately 11:15 to 11:30. We coordinated the systematic search and we also assessed buildings for stability. The houses were mostly wooden, although some had masonry fronts. There wasn't a great deal of tunneling. Mostly it was debris removal. We've had people on the scene since the search and rescue operations were completed. Usually it's just one crew, two to four people. We're Spencer's fire department now."

The Mitchell Fire Department (19 full-time, 12 part-time firefighters) was the second fire department after Salem to respond.

"We got the call at approximately 9 P.M.," Mitchell Fire Chief T.J. Sanborn said. "It probably came from a state police radio. Our first units were in Spencer at 9:44. We had Engine 4, our medic unit with two firefighter EMT-Bs, a Suburban with two EMT-Bs and one EMT-P paramedic. The medics and engines took Highway 38; the Suburban took Interstate 90.

"We assumed responsibility for EMS. The sheriff told me that our first priority was to get these people out of here. We established a triage center at the edge of town. We didn't want ambulances to go into Spencer itself because they would probably wind up with flat tires and that would only create more problems.

"The victims either walked out or paramedics organized search and rescue efforts. Some of the survivors participated in the rescue. There were 22 ambulances lined up to transport patients. They were also taken out in pickup trucks and school buses were used to transport victims to the National Guard Armory in Salem. The victims were everything from ambulatory to trapped. They had broken arms, broken legs, dislocated shoulders, cuts, abrasions, head traumas, many of them were in shock.

11_98_twister6.jpg
Photo by Chuck Blomberg/The Daily Republic
A car was hurled into the back of this once two-story apartment building when a tornado hit Spencer Saturday night. Rescue workers brought dogs in to search for anyone who might be trapped under debris.