CHETEK — Mark and Robin Tyson were huddled in their living room behind a chair around supper time Tuesday evening as a powerful storm howled outside when suddenly an entire wall of their trailer home came flying at them. The next thing they knew shards of glass were flying at them like bullets.
“I thought we were done,” Mark Tyson said about two hours after a tornado tore through the Prairie Lake Estates trailer park the couple have called home for the past 1½ years. “When your house comes apart like that, there’s no place to go. I thought this is it.”
At least one person, a 46-year-old male, was killed and an estimated 25 others were injured by a severe storm, including a tornado, that rolled through Barron County late Tuesday afternoon.
The twister struck at the trailer park along U.S. 53 in the Barron County town of Prairie Lake, about midway between Chetek and Cameron. The National Weather Service said spotters reported a tornado four miles northwest of Chetek at 5:35 p.m., and another five miles southwest of Weyerhaeuser at 6:15 p.m.
Residents said the park had about 50 trailer homes, and at least two dozen were destroyed.
“A few trailers on the perimeter are still standing, but everything in the middle is completely gone,” said Chetek police Officer Cody Stauner, one of dozens of law enforcement and emergency officials who responded to the disaster site.
The Barron County sheriff’s office reported in press release early Wednesday morning that 17 people were taken to area hospitals and up to 10 more with minor injuries refused treatment. The release said all residents of the trailer park were accounted for.
About two hours after the twister struck, Stauner said authorities were keeping everyone away from the site because of a gas leak caused by pipes breaking off in the ground.
The center of the park was a mass of debris and furniture and personal belongings, with not a single trailer left standing. Back hoes were combing through some of the rubble.
Evidence of the destruction was everywhere, with debris from houses — a teddy bear, a chunk of pipe, a family photo, a hunk of wall — scattered across the area and nearby fields. A stand of trees just east of the trailer park was reduced to a clump of trunks, with hundreds of articles of clothing and pieces of insulation dangling from them like surrender flags.
Another resident of the trailer park, Robert Black, was standing outside his home watching the storm kick up when golf ball size hail drove him inside. A short time later, while cooking supper with his wife, Black said the tornado picked the entire trailer about five feet off the ground before slamming it back on its foundation.
“The whole thing was over in about a minute — a minute of terror,” Black said. “But for about 30 seconds, it sounded like a train was coming right through my trailer.”
In the immediate aftermath, Black, 67, said he dug two elderly residents out from the three-foot-high rubble that was left of their trailer home. Remarkably, they were OK.
As dazed survivors wandered around screaming and crying, Black said he and his wife, Shelly, tended to several wounded trailer park residents, applying ice packs and cleaning up blood as best they could.
Black said a huge oak tree fell on top of all three of his cars.
“We’re alive. That’s the main thing,” he said.
Barron County Sheriff Chris Fitzgerald said a large amount of emergency crews from around the region responded to the trailer park. All local law enforcement agencies, 12 area ambulances and six area fire departments responded to the scene.
“It’s a mess,” Fitzgerald said Tuesday evening while requesting at least four more ambulances to the scene. “It’s pretty bad. We have at least one deceased so far and we’re still in a search pattern.”
Later in the evening, Fitzgerald confirmed the one person killed was a male and that authorities believe he was found in his residence.
He said police pulled people out of their trailers, ones who were trapped. They also removed pets.
Fitzgerald had no information about the condition of the wounded, but said some elderly people were removed on stretchers.
A shelter and reception center was set up for survivors at Mosaic Telephone Co. in Cameron.
The severe storm that hit the Chetek area started to develop about two hours earlier in the St. Paul area, according to meterologist Mike Griesinger of the National Weather Service in Chanhassen, Minn.
“This was a super cell that developed, a discreet storm,” he said Tuesday night. “It was around 3:30 p.m. that we started seeing signs of a thunderstorm. It quickly gained strength over Washington County (Minn.)”
Reports indicated 2-inch diameter hail hit in Polk County and hail also hit the community of Somerset hard in St. Croix County, Griesinger said.
“The storm was a right-mover,” he added, saying the eventual strength of the cell's rotation caused the storm to track east despite a wind from the southwest.
The combination of moisture, an unstable air mass, a weak front just west of the Twin Cities combined with wind sheer to set up the severe storm and tornado, he said.
The Rusk County sheriff’s office reported the community of Conrath was “hit extremely hard” by the storm, according to an officer.
Mark Tyson, 62, figures the trailer next door saved his wife and him by absorbing the brunt of the wind.
“The trailer next to us is just gone; it’s just splinters,” he said, noting with relief that the person living there wasn’t home at the time the tornado struck.
“If he would have been home, he’d be in the morgue,” Tyson said.
Robin Tyson, 57, clutched her Pomeranian, Luke, and fought back tears as she gazed at the horde of emergency personnel and wondered aloud if her pet birds survived. She recalled grabbing the dog as it ran to them as the house began to come apart.
“We hung on to each other,” Mark Tyson said. “If we were going to go, we were going to go together.”
Mark Tyson said the couple’s truck was crushed and their Lincoln was tossed upside down, but somehow their motor home parked next to their trailer suffered minimal damage.
Tyson was hanging around the fringes of the trailer park hoping authorities would let him back in to check on his property and, hopefully, find some clothes.
“I was caught with my pants down,” said Tyson, who wore a blanket wrapped around his waist and a Green Bay Packers sweatshirt, providing a rare chuckle in a disastrous day.
Across Highway SS from the trailer park, several turkey barns were destroyed, while others just lost chunks of their roofs. In an odd sight, hundreds of turkeys sat quietly on the base of their old barns, with no walls remaining around them. Neighbors said the property was owned by The Turkey Store.
As of 9:30 p.m., Xcel Energy reported power outages still affecting 588 customers in the Eleva, Mondovi and Strum areas, 805 in the Ladysmith area and 142 in the Chetek area.
Tornado watches were issued by the National Weather Service for a number of areas throughout the evening, including parts of Chippewa, Barron and Rusk counties.Tornado watches and severe thunderstorm watches were issued for Clark, Dunn, Eau Claire, Pepin, Pierce, Polk, St. Croix and Taylor counties in west-central Wisconsin, and a flash flood warning for Buffalo, Chippewa, Dunn, Eau Claire, Pepin, Pierce, Rusk and Trempealeau counties.
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