Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Remembering the Tracy, Minnesota tornado of June 13, 1968 June 13, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 6:33 AM
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“YOU COULD SEE THINGS FLYING in the air…big chunks of wood from houses…everything was circling.”

Forty-two years ago today, then18-year-old Al Koch watched as a tornado, which would soon turn deadly, aimed for his family’s Custer Township farm one mile east of Garvin in southwestern Minnesota.

“It looked like it was coming toward us, then it took a jog,” he remembers. “It was real wide and real black.”

The twister had changed direction, heading at an angle straight toward Tracy four miles to the northeast. When the Koch family—Melvin and Delpha and sons, Bruce and Al—realized that, they sounded the alarm. Delpha phoned the Tracy Police Department dispatcher at about 6:50 p.m., warning of the approaching tornado.

Civil defense sirens sounded five minutes later. And at 7:04 p.m., the twister struck the southwestern edge of this farming community.

The F5 tornado, the most powerful with winds of 261 – 318 mph, ravaged the small town, leaving nine people dead and 150 injured.

If not for that warning from the Kochs, more people likely would have died. The family was honored for their efforts, and drew much media attention.

Today, at age 60, Al recalls how his family nearly immediately drove to the Tracy hospital, where Delpha worked as a nurse. They knew she would be needed. According to news reports, even local veterinarians were called upon to treat the injured.

The Kochs dropped Delpha off and then left Tracy right away. Al remembers, especially, the people he saw walking among the destruction. “They were kind of black, covered with dirt.”

Details like that and his fear that the tornado would hit his family’s farm, even after more than four decades, stick with this Garvin farmer who had just graduated from Tracy High School in 1968. Years later, he would marry Janette, one of my best friends from Wabasso High School.

Earlier this spring while researching the Tracy tornado, I learned of Delpha Koch’s early warning to the community. I e-mailed Janette and asked if Delpha was related to her husband. Of course, she was and that’s how I ended up with a thick packet of newspaper clippings about the deadly twister. These were stories I had never heard.

I was only 11 ½ when the storm struck. On that deadly evening, my dad watched the tornado through an open barn door on our farm near Vesta. He thought the twister was much closer than Tracy 25 miles to the southwest. My family eventually drove to Tracy to see first-hand the destruction. What I witnessed left me with a life-long respect for—even fear of—the powerful strength of a tornado.

Now, 42 years later, as I paged through these first-person accounts, I sensed the horror of those who experienced the June 13, 1968, tornado.

I read, for the first time, the names of those who died: Nancy Vlahos, 2; Walter Swanson, 47; Ella Haney, 84; Mildred Harden, 75; Ellen Morgan, 75; Otelia Werner, 75; Fred Pilatus, 71; Paul Swanson, 60; and Barbara Holbrook, 50.

I read of bodies laid out for identification in the hospital laundry room. I read of the father who struggled to hold onto his 12-year-old daughter as tornadic winds tried to suck her from his grasp. I read of the 50-year-old woman who came out of her basement too early and died. I read about one victim, who had a big, long piece of wood driven through his legs. I read about the woman found lying dead near her couch, presumably unaware of the tornado because she wore a hearing aid and did not hear the storm coming.

I read. I cried.

Today, please take a moment to honor the memories of those who lost their lives in the Tracy tornado of June 13, 1968.

© Copyright 2010 Audrey Kletscher Helbling