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 sky. The series of storms caused damage throughout the area, from just east of Mitchell to east of Spencer. Note the toppled grain elevator in the foreground.
  • A civilian placed a 911 call to Sioux Falls, a city 45 miles to the east, warning that small towns in the area were in danger.
  • The state's governor, realizing that Spencer was in the path of a tornado - thanks to a private line to the National Weather Service (NWS) - got into his four-wheel-drive vehicle and began driving toward the town.
  • Crews from the neighboring Salem Fire Department had been dispatched to go "spotting" for tornadoes and were in town when the twister struck.

The NWS issued a tornado warning at 8:32 P.M. The killer tornado, rated at F4 on the Fujita scale, leveled Spencer 12 minutes later.

Mile-Square Town

Spencer, a town of 320 people, measures roughly a mile square and is laid out in a grid pattern. North to south the grid varies from six to nine blocks, while six blocks demarcate the east-to-west boundaries. The blocks are 300 feet long and there are five to seven 50-foot lots per block, making for an average of 24 dwellings per block.

Commercial and business structures were built either entirely of wood or a combination of wood with masonry fronts, with the exception of a steel water tower and a grain elevator made of reinforced concrete, steel and wood. The streets within the grid are two-lane hardtops. There are no traffic lights.

The nearest large city, Sioux Falls, population 116,000, is 45 miles to the east. Travelers from the east or west reach Spencer by taking Interstate 90 or State Road 38. North-south access is limited to an unnamed, unnumbered two-lane country road.

According to a master list compiled by members of the South Dakota National Guard, there were 188 buildings in Spencer before the twister hit. Twenty-three were businesses, including the water tower and grain elevator.

Six people were killed by the tornado; a seventh fatality, a myocardial infarction attributed to stress, occurred 24 hours later. One hundred-fifty people were injured. (The last time a tornado caused a fatality in South Dakota was in Lincoln County on July 14, 1970.)

Photo by Korrie Wenzel/The Daily Republic
South Dakota Governor Bill Janklow, left, and McCook County Sheriff Gene Taylor inform the media of the condition of victims – and the town itself – during a Sunday morning press conference on Highway 38.

Although the surrounding land is given primarily over to the farming of corn, wheat and soybeans, some cattle were killed. They were immediately taken by their owners to a rendering plant in Sioux Falls, thus obviating the possibility of typhus, a danger whenever animal carcasses are present.

Followed Unusual Path

The tornado, accompanied by heavy rains and thunder and traveling at 35 mph in an untypical northwest-to-southeasterly direction, slammed Spencer at 8:44 P.M. About 35 seconds later, the town ceased to exist for all practical purposes, having been razed by the twister whose top winds were clocked at 217 mph. It is being called the second-worst natural disaster in the history of South Dakota. (The state's worst disaster was the June 1972 flood in Rapid City that left 236 people dead and 2,900 injured.)

First Assistant Chief Gary Sher-man of the Salem Fire Department, who was on the scene before the tornado struck, recalled, "The sheriff had us paged out between 7 and 7:30 P.M. to go spotting. The sheriff and his deputies were also spotting in their vehicles. Spotting is SOP (standard operating procedure) in this part of the country. We were on Highway 38 on the north side of town. At 7:45 P.M., we got to Spencer. We saw the tornado to the northeast. Twelve of our people responded. We had a four-by-four, a grass rig and our Suburban.

"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."

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.

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.

"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.

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.

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.

"We found a lot of people under buildings. We crawled into the spaces to get them out. There was nothing to shore up. We had 14 people on the scene. There were two giant front-end loaders from a quarry two miles out of town that were used to clear a path from where we were to the center of Spencer. We transported 33 victims to Queen of Peace Hospital in Mitchell. One patient was transported via helicopter.

"None of our people were injured. Two of our rigs were also used for transportation. One rig stayed on the scene in case a rescuer went down. We were able to communicate with the hospitals because we used cell phones." Other victims were taken to McKennan Hospital and Sioux Valley Hospital, both in Sioux Falls.

Sanborn also noticed that "the tornado went from northwest to the southeast. Normally they go from the southwest to the northeast."

Meteorologist Eileen Loan of KELO-TV in Sioux Falls agreed. "Generally tornadoes go from the southwest to the northeast," she said. "If the tornado had developed in the same spot and it had gone to the northeast instead of the southeast, it would have missed the town. One of the things that a tornado needs to develop are winds at different levels going in different directions. It's called wind shear. That factor can contribute to the motion of a tornado."

By the time the rain stopped and darkness fell. Sanborn recalled, "The only light we had was on our vehicles, handlights, or headlights." The darkness was pierced by broad-beamed vehicle lights. People using smaller handlights and headlights were moving all around. The walking wounded were instinctively drawn toward either safety or help. Shadows were everywhere.

"At around midnight we hooked up some generators," said Sanborn.

Asked about mutual aid, Sanborn replied, "In essence there's no mutual aid system outside of the individual counties. Spencer is out of our jurisdiction." Then he added, "Law enforcement secured the perimeter and helped in search and rescue. The fire departments did EMS and search and rescue."

There may not be a formalized mutual aid system in place, but as Roberts said, "You make one call and everybody comes."

Photo by Dave Sietsema/The Daily Republic
A few houses were left standing, but that hardly meant they could be lived in. Nearly all the structures in town were demolished, whether or not they look like it from the air.

Each chief, in addition to elements from the sheriff's department and the highway patrol, took appropriate initiatives and did what had to be done. As Sanborn put it, "Search and rescue was a concerted effort on the part of the fire department and law enforcement. It didn't matter if you were wearing yellow or blue."

The men were working in very little light in what essentially amounted to a pile of rubble that was a mile square. The professionalism and efficiency of their combined efforts is illustrated by the fact that none of the victims who were extricated died as a result of their injuries. The fatalities involved individuals who were crushed to death as the tornado passed through Spencer. These deaths could not have been avoided except by the possible activation of the warning sirens.

"What saved lives was that the tornado hit at 8:44 P.M. - lot of people weren't home," Sanborn said. "There's not a lot to do in Spencer on a Saturday night. They were in Mitchell or Sioux Falls. Had it hit later, 1 or 2 A.M., we would have had much more death and injury because they would have been home.

"We stayed as EMS until 2:30 or 3 A.M. and were on the scene until 8:30 A.M. on Sunday, 14 hours. We weren't involved with the cleanup. This was the ultimate thing I've ever been exposed to in 29 years of service. Every tree was stripped not only of leaves but also of its bark.

"I think that the people working for the Mitchell Fire Department and the Davidson County Ambulance worked extremely well under the circumstances that were presented and the resources we had to work with."

Governor Takes Command

Janklow arrived at 10:15 P.M. and became the incident commander. As he is authorized to do as governor, he made all personnel on the scene state employees, effectively putting the fire departments and highway patrol under his jurisdiction and control. He ordered a highway patrol mobile command post (CP) based in Pierre to report to the scene. The 18-wheeler arrived at 1 A.M.

"One of the problems we had was that we didn't know how to get a hold of people (once the CP arrived)," Roberts said. "We used the governor's CP to call a person in California at 4 A.M. Once we had names, we used the CP's telephones to help locate anybody anywhere if someone wasn't where they were supposed to be. We also helped search on a grid, using local townspeople as coordinators. We went house by house.

"We used our people (the three Spencer firefighters who reported for duty after digging themselves out) to tell the other fire departments who lived there. We coordinated the rescue. We were told the work we did saved 17 hours of time. The Spencer firefighters did more than their share." It is reasonable to assume that the 17 saved hours contributed greatly to the lack of fatalities resulting from injury; at the very least it significantly reduced or alleviated the suffering of those individuals who were trapped under rubble.

Members of Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 147th Field Artillery of the South Dakota National Guard, coincidentally in the middle of training, and 100 short-term, nonviolent inmates from the Springfield State Penitentiary also made significant contributions.

"They were there during the last part of the rescue," Roberts said. "The last body was found at 9:50 A.M. on Sunday. An elderly lady had been sucked out of her apartment and was discovered under the library trailer. The prisoners found her."

Critical incident stress debriefing (CISD) was made available to the rescue workers. Utilization of this constructive tool was encouraged by both health and firefighting professionals. Active participation in lengthy search and rescue operations, especially in tightly knit communities where searchers often personally know the victims, can frazzle the nerves of the most seasoned veteran. The discovery and removal of cadavers, especially those that are severely disfigured (as was the case with the victim who had been crushed beneath the library's trailer), only added to the emotional trauma.

The governor indicated that Spencer will be rebuilt. Shortly after the tornado struck, a model house was brought into town - these two- or three-bedroom homes are made by prisoners in the Springfield Correctional Facility. After they have been prefabricated, they are taken by flatbed trucks to a pre-determined site. The homes are being made available to people who are 62 or older or who have low incomes. Given the number of elderly people in Spencer and the extent of the destruction, all of its residents probably meet the criteria.

Smallest Survivor?

Lastly, there is Willow. Willow is a Chihuahua that was chained to a motor home when the tornado struck. Two things happened that shouldn't have happened. The first was that the motor home was not destroyed by the tornado. The second thing was that Willow, after being flung around like a rag doll by the extremely high winds produced by the tornado, didn't get its neck broken. The dog was released from a clinic after treatment for eye abrasions.

Michael Garlock is a Florida- and New York-based freelance writer specializing in fire service response to major storms.