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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"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.