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 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."

11_98_twister7.jpg
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.