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:

Cliffy,
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.

 

16 Responses to “Stories from the Tracy, Minnesota, tornado remembered and published 44 years later”

  1. treadlemusic Says:

    That must have been quite a season as Houston experienced a tornado that did much damage, literally, where we live and in the town. Some of the buildings on our place, and remodeling done in our house, used materials from the owners’ home that was destroyed as a twister hopped over our ridge. That site was a 1/2 mile from here. Have seen quite a few in the air but have not experienced one on the ground. Great, sad, story!

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      Of all the tornadoes that have personally affected me or my family, I’ve only seen one and that was across the field to the east of my home farm. I have great respect for tornadoes and especially for strong thunderstorms after riding one out for 45 minutes along a rural roadway two years ago in the black of night.

  2. Lanae Says:

    I remember….

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      I knew you would, sister. I wish Dad was still here so I could ask him more about what he saw and what he was thinking. There are so many things now that I wish I’d asked him about…

  3. dakotagirl Says:

    I was 7 at the time and I remember my Dad and some other local people from Brookings heading over to help with the clean-up.

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      Yes, it’s simply astounding how many volunteers came to Tracy to assist. A true testament to the goodness and care of humankind. Did you ever talk to your dad about what he specifically saw and did?

  4. Tom & DeLores Johnson Says:

    Audrey,

    This brought back memories of July 1, 2011 in Belview. We are still dealing with the effects of the tornado. We are still working on repairing our house on the inside. We had mold in our living room ceiling so ceiling had to be torn out down to the joists and treated the mold and rebuilt and replaced ceiling.
    I was always scared of storms too but since this tornado I am terrified when the wind
    starts blowing and storm clouds start rolling in.

    I was about 5 years old when we lived on our farm north of Echo when a tornado
    touched down and took our neighbors barn. I remember going with my parents on
    the other side of our grove and saw their place had been hit.

    I ordered Scott Thoma’s book and went back and read all your previous posts on tornados. I felt your fear.

    DeLores

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      I’ve been wondering how you are all doing in Belview, so thank you for the update. I’m not surprised that your recovery and work on your house is still continuing.

      I’m excited about returning to Vesta soon and getting inside St. John’s to see how the church has changed since last summer’s storm took half the roof off. My mom and sister say it’s really nice with the addition.

      Once we’ve experienced storms like you and I have, I think a certain fear and respect for their power is warranted.

  5. Allan Landman Says:

    Oh! How I remember that horrible night. I had Graduated from High School on May 28th, 1968. The night of the horrible tornado, Mom was busy preparing for my Graduation party that was planned for the next day. Dad and I were looking out the windows at the black/green sky. We lived on a farm about 45 miles north of the Twin City Metro area. Dad was calm, but concerned that we were in its path of destruction. I had never experienced such calm just before the storm. Mom was busy in the kitchen and showing only concern for the upcoming day with “the relatives”. As Dad and I were looking out the South windows of the house, we could hear the wind pick up speed, and the “train locamotive” coming. Fortunately the funnel was too high and skipped over us, but we could feel the vacuum of the air around us. Doors through out the house were slamming, and then the rain hit! I prayed so hard that we would be saved along with everyone else in MN. We heard later of the tragedy in Tracy. At the young age of 17, I was heart broken for the ones that lost their homes, and loved ones. Only four years earlier, we felt the Fridley tornado go over our farm. We found a few pieces of papers in our fields. One was from a jewelery store in Fridley. Dad mailed it back to the Store, after all, that is what Minnesota people do for one another, is help thy neighbor in need. Your story was a good reminder to all your readers that we must heed warnings, and play it safe. And please do not go outside to get a better view of the tornado in action. Ones life is worth billions!!! By the way, the party went off as planned. Mom’s food was perfect and delicious as usual. My Mom and Dad have passed away, but the memories are instilled in my mind. Whenever a storm is brewing, I think of Mom and Dad and those scary tornado threats. I can see Dad watching the skys, and Mom always busy with something. Mothers do not get enough credit for their constant work, at home, and at their jobs. Thank you to all the moms in the world! I thank my Wife often for her “unstoppable” work she does to make our life easier. There I said it, men! Go thank your mom and wife.

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      I had no idea that the bad weather on June 13, 1968, threatened so far from Tracy. Thank you for sharing your memories and also for your suggestion that moms and wives be thanked more often.

  6. Cosmos Says:

    I was only 4 years old when the tornado hit Tracy, and all my life I’ve associated Tracy with the tornado. A few years later a tornado hit my hometown of Waseca, and I’ve had a lifelong fear and respect of these ferocious storms ever since.

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      It’s interesting to read your comment, to learn that you, too, were affected by the Tracy tornado in a way that has lasted a life-time.

  7. Wowza. Colin mentioned something about that tornado the other day and so I’ve thought about it recently, too. That photo of the twister is amazing. AMAZING and terrifying. I think I’ll have to read that book!

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      I agree that the tornado photo is amazing. I would not have had the courage to stand there and photograph it. I would have been tucked into the basement.


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