Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Stories from the Tracy, Minnesota, tornado remembered and published 44 years later June 13, 2012

Eric J. Lantz, 16, of Walnut Grove, shot this award-winning photo of the Tracy tornado as it was leaving town. He often took photos for the Walnut Grove Tribune, owned by his uncle, Everett Lantz. This image by Eric was awarded third place in the 1968 National Newspaper Association contest for best news photo.

FORTY-FOUR YEARS AGO TODAY Minnesota’s first F5 tornado, the most powerful with wind speeds in excess of 300 mph, plowed through the southwestern Minnesota farming community of Tracy killing nine.

Twenty-five miles to the northeast, my farmer father paused from milking cows on that sultry June 13 evening in 1968 to watch the tornado churn across the flat prairie landscape. Not wanting to unduly alarm his family, he did not warn us of the approaching storm. Only afterward, when the menacing clouds dissipated before reaching our farm, did he tell us what he’d observed through the open barn door.

Days later our family of eight piled into the family car and drove to Tracy to see the devastation.

This photo, taken by Eric J. Lantz, a printer’s devil/photographer for the Walnut Grove Tribune, was republished in  the Tracy Headlight Herald courtesy of the Tribune. It shows a damaged boat and overturned car sitting atop the rubble after the Tracy tornado of June 13, 1968.

I was an impressionable 11 ½ years old at the time. Specific memories of that destruction—except for twisted, shredded trees and tossed boxcars—have long vanished. But the overall, chaotic scene and the deaths of those nine Tracy residents are forever seared into my memory. The deadly Tracy tornado is the sole reason I dream about and fear tornadoes.

The photo by Eric J. Lantz illustrates the cover of Scott Thoma’s just-published book.

So I knew when I picked up Tracy native Scott Thoma’s recently-published book, Out of the Blue—The true story of two sisters and their miraculous survival of one of the most powerful tornadoes in Minnesota history—that the nightmare would come.

And it did, on the night I finished the chapter about sisters Linda (Haugen) Vaske, 20, and Pam Haugen, 8, who never made it to the basement of Linda’s home, I dreamed that I could not reach the basement during a tornado.

I’ve blocked out the rest of that nightmare. And for more than four decades, Linda, who was flung about by the fierce winds of that 1968 tornado as was Pam, also blocked out much of that terrifying event. That is until she and Pam sat down with Thoma, a long-time writer and newspaper reporter, to talk about that fateful evening when they nearly lost their lives.

For 44 years, Linda blamed herself for the death of the tornado’s youngest victim, 2 ½-year-old Nancy Vlahos, whom Linda’s then-husband and she were in the process of adopting. The preschooler was ripped from Linda’s arms and later found dead in the street.

While the story of the Haugen sisters and little Nancy centers the book, Thoma’s account of the Tracy tornado encompasses the stories of others, including his own. He lived less than a block from the twister’s destructive path and recalls his father searching for an elderly neighbor and unintentionally stepping upon the man’s lifeless body wrapped in a tattered drape. It was the first time he saw his father cry.

That intimate familiarity with the scenes that unfolded in the aftermath of the tornado and the understanding of how small towns pull together assure readers that Thoma is writing this for reasons which are deeply personal. He is honoring those who died, those who survived and those who helped his community of then 2,500 residents in its hours of greatest need.

You will read about Delpha Koch, who from her farm home five miles southwest of Tracy, phoned a dispatcher at 6:55 p.m. to warn of the approaching tornado, saving countless lives. Ditto for the police officer and train crew and others who alerted residents to the storm.

Delpha, a critical care nurse at the Tracy Hospital, her husband and two sons immediately headed into Tracy, arriving as screaming and stunned residents covered in dirt and silt emerged from the rubble. Almost immediately rescuers began taking the dead and injured to the hospital in a furniture delivery truck and other vehicles.

Thoma, via conversations with survivors and through extensive research, writes with absolute attention to detail, taking the reader inside that 42-bed hospital where 171 patients were seen for tornado-related injuries in the outpatient department. Twenty-three were hospitalized, including the Haugen sisters—Linda was seriously injured, Pam was not.

In what I consider one of the most memorable lines from the book, Thoma quotes Kathy Haugen, upon seeing Linda: “That’s not my sister.” Due to the extent of her injuries, Linda was unrecognizable to even her closest loved ones.

Thoma’s book is as much a tragic story of lives lost and homes and businesses damaged or destroyed as it is about a community pulling together. From Tracy Fire Chief/Fire Marshall/Civil Defense Director Bernie Holm who worked tirelessly for his community to the 80-year-old retired doctor who volunteered at the hospital to the veterinarians who sutured wounds to the farmers who brought tanks of water to the hospital and more, this is a story of how we as humans assist one another in need.

But it is also a story which emphasizes the ferocity of an F5 tornado, one of only two which have ever occurred in Minnesota, the other in nearby Chandler on June 16, 1992. One person was killed in Chandler and 35 injured.

I remember, from 1968 accounts of the Tracy tornado, the reports of tossed boxcars; a 25-ton boxcar was blown two blocks. Thoma spews out the numbers—26 toppled train cars, 111 destroyed homes, 76 houses with major damages, five businesses destroyed and 15 businesses damaged.

Yet, what impacts me most upon reading his book are the nuances of this tornado, like the account of Tracy resident Jerry Engesser discovering a book upon the rubble in his yard. He turns it over to read the title, Gone with the Wind.

And then, the bit that makes goosebumps rise on my arms comes in a partial letter found by a farmer 45 miles away near Redwood Falls. It reads:

It’s raining and hailing here tonight and the wind is blowing hard…

Linda (Haugen) Vaske had just begun writing that letter to her military husband, Clifford, when the tornado swept into Tracy around 7 p.m. on Thursday, June 13, 1968, claiming nine lives and forever changing this southwestern Minnesota prairie community.

Eric J. Lantz, photographer for the Walnut Grove Tribune, also took this photo which was shared and published in the Tracy Headlight Herald. He captured this scene at the demolished Tracy Elementary School.

FYI: Click here to link to Willmar, Minnesota, author Scott Thoma’s Out of the Blue website. His book was published in May by Polaris Publications, an imprint of North Star Press of St. Cloud, Inc.

To read an earlier post I wrote about the Tracy tornado, click here. It features information from Al Koch, who is married to one of my best friends from Wabasso High School, Janette Koch. Al witnessed the Tracy tornado and destruction and his mother, Delpha, phoned the Tracy dispatcher about the approaching tornado.

My experience with tornadoes is personal. About 30 years ago, when I was already an adult and living away from home, a twister struck the farm where I grew up. Click here to read that post.

Click here to read a post about a tornado which struck my father’s childhood farm about a mile away in 1953 or 1954.

Last July 1 a series of downbursts with windspeeds of 90 – 100 mph swept through my hometown of Vesta. Read about the damage there by clicking here.

And finally, click here to read a post about a terrifying storm my husband, son, mother and I rode out in a car along a rural road north of Walnut Grove (near Tracy) two summers ago. I’ve probably never been more terrified than during those 45 minutes on that stormy, black night.

Yes, I fear and respect tornadoes. You should, too.

© Copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling
Copyrighted photos are courtesy of Scott Thoma and are published here with his permission. Photographer Eric J. Lantz retains the copyright to the above photos.

 DISCLAIMER: I received a free copy of Out of the Blue. However, that did not influence my decision to write this post nor its content.