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


33 Responses to “Remembering the Tracy, Minnesota tornado of June 13, 1968”

  1. Richard Rider Says:

    It I remember right there were other Tornadoes that day in Minnesto. Wasn’t Fridley also did that same day?

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      Richard, the Fridley tornado was several years earlier, on May 6, 1965.

      Thanks for visiting Minnesota Prairie Roots.

  2. Jo Meyer Says:

    Hi, If I recall correctly, we lost a relative then. Do you have a list of the nine lives lost and or injured victims.

  3. rita forbregd Says:

    my dad was the man who held on to his daughter

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      Rita, were you the daughter? If so, would you be willing to share what you remember and how this has affected you? Is your father still living?
      How was he impacted?

      I cannot even begin to imagine the terror of going through such an ordeal as battling against the fierce force of a tornado.

  4. joe Says:

    I was only 4 years old when we were visiting Tracy to go to the A and W that fateful night. My whole family of 7 were in a station wagon and out ran that tornado, we later drove back through the town and saw the damage.
    We still talk about it to this day!

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      That’s quite a story to pass down through the generations. I’d like to hear more details if you’re willing to share. Since you were only four, how much do you remember about the tornado and/or trying to escape it?

  5. Sharon A Farrah Says:

    I came to visit my Aunt and stayed for a week a few weeks after the tornado. My other Aunts house was leveled and they feared she was dead. They found her under the couch; but stil living. She recovered. I remember all the blocks of debris and the steps without houses.

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      How frightening this must have been for your aunts and for your family. Thank you for sharing your personal story.

  6. paul Says:

    Very interesting articles and information – Ella Haney was my mother’s Grandmother and was killed in this tornado. Several other relatives also lived in Tracy at the time – my mom’s aunt and uncle watched the tornado go through their parent’s home – destroying it – not knowing if they were ok. Luckily they were – but I remember hearing the stories about this dreadful event even though I wasn’t even born yet!

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      Wow. Thanks for sharing this personal story. How horrible for your family to have gone through this tornado and to have lost a loved one.

  7. jeff Says:

    I was 5 at the time and still remember it very well. I lived in the house between Mrs. Werner and Mr Pilatus. Recalling that scene after the tornado had passed was very disturbing. There was so little left.

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      I cannot imagine the terror you experienced during the Tracy tornado. That tornado is the reason I so fear twisters. I, too, remember that utter devastation in Tracy.

  8. Andrew Lee Says:

    My father Dr. Lee was the only doctor in town at that time, I didn’t see him for many days as he worked to save lives. Quite amazing in all I read he was not mentioned. I think I was nine and living to the east did not experience the trauma that so many did. I remember the shotzko family surviving in that big house right across from the school.

    This is from his son, Andrew

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      Andrew, thank you for telling us about your father, Dr. Lee’s, tireless efforts to save lives. I can only imagine how difficult this situation must have been for him in the aftermath of this killer tornado. If you have more you’d like to share, please do so. Your father certainly is worthy of much thanks for all he did. I appreciate that you stopped by with this comment.

  9. Mary Hatrick Says:

    I was 13 and at 4-H camp at Lake Shetek that day. Someone called while we were finishing supper to tell us the tornado was heading our way. We were told to run to the lake and sit on the rocks for safety. We all watched in horror as the tornado came straight toward us. Everyone was crying. Luckily, it turned before it got to us. I’ve always wondered how close it was to us. Do you happen to know that?

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      Oh, my goodness, you must have been terrified. “Run to the lake and sit on the rocks.” What were the adults thinking? I don’t know how close the tornado came to Lake Shetek. But I bet someone out there has the answer. Readers?

      Thank you, Mary, for sharing your experience.

  10. Doris Says:

    Thank you for the interesting history and thoughtful discussion. I have family in the area around Tracy. Any tornado needs to be respected. I don’t want to imagine what people went through. Question for Andrew Lee did his father move on to Rush City later in his career?

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      Doris, thank you so much for stopping by and I totally agree with you that any tornado should be respected. I, too, appreciate all of the discussion and stories shared here. Andrew, can you answer Doris’ question about your father, Dr. Lee?

    • Gabbrielle Lee Says:

      This is Andrew’s daughter. I just came across this post about him and my grandfather. Yes, Dr. Lee did go on to Rush City before retiring in coon rapids, MN.

  11. Mark G Says:

    Great post; thank you for sharing it. I was 7 years old at the time, growing up in northeast Iowa, and, less than one month earlier (May 15) an F-5 tornado struck the nearby town of Charles City (13 dead, 450+ injured) and, just 45 minutes later, a second F-5 struck the nearby towns of Oelwein and Maynard (5 dead, 150+ injured.) Downtown Charles City, especially, shocked me; the entire east half of the downtown business district was completely destroyed, and a new, one-story elementary school just to the north of downtown was swept clean from the concrete slab. So when the Tracy tornado happened, even though it was quite a distance away from us, it was major news in our area, and a terrible reminder of what we’d just experienced in Iowa. As an aside, the deaths and injuries in the second storm would have been much higher, but for the fact that news of the earlier tornado had caused people, when warned of the approaching storm, to take cover RIGHT NOW! The first storm destroyed almost 600 homes; the second storm destroyed over 1000 homes. In Charles City, all 8 of the city’s churches were either destroyed or were severely damaged; none of the city’s bars were damaged at all.

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      Mark, I had no knowledge of these killer Iowa tornadoes until right now, reading your comment. Those numbers of dead and injured and the amount of destruction are horrible. I can only imagine the impression these tornadoes made on you and then the Tracy tornado a month later.

      Thank you so much for stopping by with this information. I expect you, too, have a healthy respect for tornadoes.

  12. Jon Gempler Says:

    Hi My Name is Jon Gempler. I lived on Center St. when this all happened. I now live in Boise Idaho. To this day I still talk and remember that night as me and my brothers were outside playing when the sky got a real yellowish look and very calm, then the big hail stones came down. We grabbed a bunch of them and ran into the house to show dad, who is Lyle Gempler. Then the phone rang and the town whistle went off and we all went into the basement and prayed and cried. We then heard the loud thunder and roar of the massive tornado. as the sound dissipated we got out of the basement and I will never forget the sight that I witnessed seeing the tornado leaving town. My dad got us in the car and we drove around town looking at all the deviation that it left behind. My parents Lyle and JoAnn Gempler decide to move to Idaho. I just ran across this sight and thought that I would share a little about what I witnessed and went through that night

  13. Mary (Peggy) Schons Kappes Says:

    I was at 4-H camp and saw it up front and personal it hit Lake Shetek and was right across from where the 4-H camp was it sucked up water and mud that weighed it down and went back on land and headed towards Tracy, Minnesota! I was terrified and have been since the 1st tornado I ever saw! The power of that Tracy, Minnesota one I did not know till years later was an F-5! Tracy was where I was born and raised till the age of 10 when we moved to Rushmore, Minnesota!! We had Family and Friends all over town and were scared to death of what we might find out!! The grade school where I went to looked like a bomb hit it! Jon Gempler your Mom was one of my Mom’s best friends they went to school in Tracy Mary Lou Johnson was her maiden name and she married Irvin Schons! I went to school with one of your Brothers! I know when I say we had Family and Friends all over Tracy we feared the worse! We were lucky not one of our Family members or Friends and their family were hurt! We were saddened by the loss of life and the destruction of property everywhere we looked!!

  14. Doris Says:

    Scary to see the tornadic activity last night thinking of the anniversary. It has been a while since I was back to see the posts. I appreciate the additional information and memories. Thanks also to Gabbrielle on the follow-up on Dr. Lee. He ended up being our family doctor in Rush City, what a great doctor and wonderful person! He continued to save lives. He delivered my twin brother and sister who were born seven weeks premature.

  15. LG Griffith Says:

    I remember that night very well. I lived in Redwood Falls at the time and was 11. I was out playing in the neighborhood where we lived and all of a sudden everything felt weird, the sky and clouds were green and the clouds were really strange. I went home as it really spooked me. Later heard on the news what had happened in Tracy. It is something I will never forget.

    • I understand. The memory of the Tracy tornado is forever seared in my memory also. It’s one of the reasons I respect and fear tornadoes. A tornado touched down in Faribault (where I live) two years ago. I heard the freight train noise, then the power went out. Was I scared? Yes. I can look out my office window right now and see what I term “tornado trees,” with branches broken. I can look at the wooded hillside behind the garage and see more tornado trees. Fortunately, only the electrical box and wires were pulled from our house. Neighbors’ houses and vehicles were damaged by fallen trees. It was a frightening night that took me back to the Tracy tornado.

      Thank you for reading Minnesota Prairie Roots and for sharing your Tracy tornado memories.

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