If you have your own stories of the Charles City, Maynard, and Oelwein F5 tornadoes of May 15, 1968, and/or their aftermath and would like them recorded on this webpage, please send them to the National Weather Service via e-mail at Jeff.Boyne@noaa.gov or via regular mail at N2788 County Rd. FA, La Crosse, WI 54601-3038. We appreciate your help and your time in commemorating this remarkable, but tragic event. We also would like to thank The Charles City Press for allowing us to include some of the accounts that came into their 1968 Charles City Tornado blog.
For more information, try the Facebook page for the Charles City, IA tornado.
Margo (Mayfield) Lind
Don & Ilene Moore
Karen and Gene Nygaard
Leesa Stanbro Siems (1)
Leesa Stanbro Siems (2)
Rosemary Byrne Yokoi
Charles City Tornado Accounts:I first want to thank the staff at the Charles City Press and National Weather Service for setting up this blog. It's a great idea and the stories shared are extremely interesting.
Note: This account came from The Charles City Press' 1968 Charles City Tornado Blog (Submitted on May 20, 2008)
Our family had just moved from New Hampton the previous summer as my father was a pilot at the airport. I had just turned 5 in March of 1968 and my sister was 5 months old. Our house was on Cedar Street between 3rd and 4th Streets. I would have attended McKinley Elementary in the fall.
On the 15th my mother, sister, and I were visiting friends at a new subdivision at the north end of town across the street from Washington Elementary. All of us kids were playing in the backyard. I believe I was the oldest and my sister was the youngest. The mothers were having coffee and cokes and the babies were taking naps.
My mother told me earlier to tell her if it started to rain so she could roll the windows up in the car. When it did start to rain, she ran out and did so, and then we all came in the house. One of the ladies, Galene Sobolik, who also had her children, Kris and Patrick there, mentioned that it sounded like a train was coming and someone yelled, "it's a tornado," and we all scrambled to get to the basement with mother grabbing napping babies.
We got to the basement just as the tornado it. All I remember is a horrible "whoosh" and the entire house was ripped off the foundation and landed on the house across the street. After it passed, the lady who owned the house, I have since forgotten her name, had been picked up and was sitting on a table. The swingset from the backyard was on top of all of us. My mother, Karen Anderson, was the tallest and she crawled out and helped everyone else out. I barely remember going across the street to another house and going into the basement. That house still had the first floor. An older girl gave me a teddy bear, which I still have to this day. Our car, was supposedly thrown against a pole or tree and bent in half. I do remember how quiet it was after it hit.
After it was decided that no more storms were coming, our group walked to down town to Drs. Trefz and Tolliver's clinic behind the Carnegie Library. We got there to be checked out and while there I remember a women who had been standing in front of a plate glass window and was cut in many places from head to foot.
From the clinic we, I beleive, checked on my grandmother, Marlys Young, who lived in an apartment, next to what is today a bar on Mainstreet on the same block as the Uptown. From there, we continued to Galene's house which is located somewhere just north of Lincoln Elementary. We put water in buckets, I guess because the adults believed that the water might be bad, and stayed there for some time.
My father, Alan Anderson, had been at work at the airport, two miles to the east, and the entire crew there watched the whole thing unfold. At some point they all headed in to find family and friend and help with the recovery.
That is the last I remember of being in the town for some time. We eventually made it to my grandparent's house in New Hampton where we stayed for some length of time.
Our house on Cedar Street survived the tornado, but I guess it was a disaster. The garage was gone, all of the windows were broken and my mom told me later that mud covered the entire inside of the house. Most, if not all, of the houses behind us on Hildreth and further east were destroyed, as were Towbridges, McKinely Elementary, and other places. Our beagle, Buffy, who was tied to the garage also was gone, but he eventually returned to us two weeks later.
Later, when everything sort of settled down, I can remember going to St. Johns Luthern Church for a tetnus shot at the clinic they had set up there with the Red Cross, I believe.
I remember the next year or so, playing on the dirt mounds created by all of the building taking place in and around my house on Cedar Street. I don't really remember much of the damage being apparent after that as I grew up. McKinley Elementary became McKinley Hill and we used to race bikes in a dirt path where the playground was, sled down the hill there, and play touch football in the open area.
When I used to go up in a plane with my father I can remember him pointing out the path which was very evident due to the loss of all of the trees. I am amazed today when I return for a visit at how green everything looks and how mature the trees are.
In the end, I am sure that everyone who survived suffered some sort of trauma. I remember being absolutely terrified of storms and would gather all of my GI Joes and my teddy bear and "hide" or sit under the table in the basement where we went when things got bad. I am no longer scared, but do take them seriously and am the first to send my family to the basement.
I am absolutely convinced that the town, while it suffered some horrific times during and following the tornado and with the collapse of the farm economy in the late 70's and early 80's is one of the finest towns anywhere. When I go home, I am proud of have grown up there.
Note: This account came from The Charles City Press' 1968 Charles City Tornado Blog (Submitted on May 15, 2008)
Below are the words to the song "Black Wednesday"
The Hauser Funeral Home was a stately, two-story dwelling that included a spacious apartment above first-floor visitation rooms, an office area and a lower level burial preparation area. Carl and his wife Alice had raised a family while living in the funeral home. Their son, Kip had recently joined the family business. Carl and Kip had spent long hours that spring working on an addition to the funeral home that would provide display space for caskets. On May 14th, they had received a semi-truck load of caskets, their largest inventory ever. Just a day’s work remained until they could call the addition finished. On the afternoon of May 15, Carl had just finished a funeral and there were no upcoming services on the schedule. Except for Carl and his assistant Mac Jones, who lived next door, the funeral home was empty. Carl’s wife Alice was out of town for the day. Kip and his wife Judy were attending a funeral director’s conference in Des Moines. Unless a call came for Carl to pick up a body, it appeared that this particular Wednesday evening would be a quiet one. In fact, it was the quiet that caught Carl’s attention as he parked the funeral coach in the garage. Carl went and stood in the driveway for a moment, awed by the palpable stillness had crept up from the river. It was more than the absence of bird song and insect buzz. It was the presence of something, a change in the quality of air that meant that something was coming. Carl ran into the funeral home, realizing that the quiet was soon to be dangerously disturbed. “Mac, let’s get to the basement,” he called. Mac said that he was going to run to his home next door instead. He needed to help his wife and blind mother, but Carl convinced him that there would be no time. Within moments of getting to the basement, Carl and Mac were blackened with dirt that sifted down through the rafters as the tornado shook the house. Debris blocked the doorways out of the basement, but Mac fought his way through and ran home where he found his wife and mother standing at the top of the stairs, stunned but unhurt. Carl immediately ran down Blunt Street to the YMCA where Kip and Judy’s children were enrolled for afternoon swim lessons. Fortunately, their babysitter had kept them at home because of the weather.
On his way back home, Carl got his first full view of the tornado’s damage to their home and business. Their apartment had been torn off the top of the house and parts of the front of the building were missing. The newly-built casket display area looked more like an open deck than a finished room. The addition had been constructed out of 12 inch concrete blocks set with 13 thirty-foot reinforcing rods. The Hausers later found nine of the rods driven into the ground by the Masonic Temple, four blocks to the northwest. Without the reinforcing rods, the concrete block walls tumbled to the ground. Caskets were strewn into the next block. Carl also found that a body had been carefully placed on the front lawn with one of the funeral cots from the funeral coach. The garage door was blocked by a huge pile of concrete blocks that had tumbled onto the driveway from the new addition. Rescuers had worked their way through a small opening in the garage wall, helped themselves to the cot in the funeral coach and placed the body where they trusted Carl would find it. They also knew that Carl would recognize the deceased and know how to honor the family’s wishes. Carl dragged the body into the funeral home. There was nothing more he could do right then and there, so he went back out to see if their neighbors needed help.
Meanwhile, Kip and Judy had finished the funeral director’s conference in Des Moines and were heading back home. With the Des Moines skyline in their car’s rearview mirror, Kip said to Judy, “If I would have stayed home today, I could have gotten all those little things done in the new addition.” Judy replied, “I’m sure it will all be waiting for you when we get home.” The car radio was tuned to a Des Moines station. At about 5:45 PM, an announcer reported that downtown sections of Charles City and Oelwein had been hit by tornadoes. Kip sped up and the radio station went to a commercial break. Long moments later, the announcer came back on, only to report that there was little information coming out of Charles City because the city’s telephone company had been knocked out of commission. Northwestern Bell Telephone Company was one block north of the funeral home. Kip flipped on his hazard lights and covered the remaining 100 miles in an hour. As Kip and Judy approached Charles City on highway 18, they were forced to pull over half a dozen times to let ambulances pass into town. At the Seven Mile Corner west of town, they were stopped by a National Guard blockade and asked to show proof of residency to go any further. National Guard soldiers stopped them again in front of Salsbury Laboratories on Highway 18 and a third time a short distance up the road at the American Legion Hall. At the final blockade, a National Guard soldier approached Kip’s car and apologized for the inconvenience. “I’m sorry, you won’t be able to go in. We’ve had a very bad tragedy here today.”
From that particular vantage point, the only positive sign they had was that the trees were whole and fully-leaved as far to the right as they could see. They hoped that this meant that their home was spared with their children safe inside. Kip replied, “We just live a few blocks beyond this point. Our parents and children are in town. We have to go in.” The guard again apologized and stood his ground. Judy stayed out of the conversation until she sensed that the poor guard was in danger of being taken off duty by her increasingly agitated husband. When Kip started to get out of the car, Judy piped in, “Please sir, our children…” The soldier then asked Kip, “What do you do here, sir?” When Kip replied that he was a funeral director, the guard said, “Good God, go on in. We need you bad.” Kip and Judy went straight to their home on Charles Street and found their children safe with a neighborhood sitter. Their home had broken windows, but no serious damage. Judging by the guardsman’s comments, Kip anticipated that he would need to take more than the sedan he was driving to the funeral home, so he drove the family’s station wagon downtown. Kip took South Main Street toward the center of town, driving across lawns where other cars had already carved a path to get around trees blocking the road. Turning from Main to Blunt Street, Kip was able to drive only a block or so before he was stalled by huge elms trees that lay sprawled across the street, crushing several cars. Kip left the car near the old YMCA and walked to the funeral home.
Inside the funeral home, the ceremonious order of the foyer and visitation rooms had been violated with a spray of mud and glass. The curtains hung in shreds and water dripped from the ceiling. Kip found a woman’s body on a funeral cot. He knew her well. Sadie Chambers had been their grandmotherly neighbor across Blunt Street for many years. Kip looked through every lonely room of the funeral home, then went out into the neighborhood. Rain began a “drip, drip, drip,” adding to the hiss of leaking gas pipes and the gurgle of broken water pipes in surrounding homes. Finding no one who knew anything of his father, Kip returned to the funeral home. Carl had been scouting around the neighborhood as well, helping where he could, but never crossing paths with Kip until they finally met back up at the funeral home. Without electricity and running water, they would not be able to prepare bodies for burial there. Kip went back out to the streets and flagged down a man in an earth-moving truck who could clear a path from their garage and on down Blunt Street. Carl and Kip then drove the funeral coach and Kip’s station wagon to the hospital where they suspected that there was work to be done.
With the onslaught of injured persons streaming into the hospital, the dead had been hastily moved to the morgue. None of the bodies had yet been tagged with any type of identification but Carl knew the name of each person. He also knew who would have likely called him and who would have called Hage Funeral Home across town. Hage was not damaged but it was without utilities as well. Carl took two bodies to a Nashua funeral home and Kip took three bodies to Champion Funeral Home in Osage. When Kip arrived at Champion, their tiny embalming room was already occupied by one tornado victim, an unidentified male. As Kip was preparing the bodies for burial, Floyd County Sheriff L. L. Lane arrived to document the identities of the 3 victims Kip had delivered and gather information about the other victim. Kip worked at the Osage funeral home until after midnight. As he drove back toward Charles City, he was awestruck by the utter darkness where the city lights should have been glowing on the horizon. At home, Judy had left a candle burning for Kip on the kitchen counter. Though she meant it to be welcoming, it stirred anxious thoughts of fire.
Kip drove back downtown to the funeral home where he knew there was a supply of sturdier tall glass candleholders. The funeral home’s basement was as familiar to him as any place on earth, but the extreme stillness and absence of light evoked the creeps beyond anything he’d ever known, even by a seasoned mortician’s standards. Rain and wind banged doors on creaky hinges as he searched for the candles with the thin beam of his flashlight. As he ascended the basement steps with the box of candle holders, a National Guard jeep with a mounted machine gun cut through the stillness on Blunt Street. Among other things, the guards were patrolling for looters. Kip crept stealthily to his car, careful not to invite a discussion about what he was doing carrying cargo out of a funeral home at 2:00 a.m.
In the hours since Kip had conferred with Sheriff L. L. Lane about the unidentified body in the Osage funeral home, the sheriff had scouted every locale in town where he thought he might find someone who could identify the victim. It would be nearly 24 hours after the storm before Sheriff Lane could place a name for the young man and provide a beginning step toward closure for his family. About the time that Kip Hauser was trying to solve his lighting dilemma, the sheriff was summoned to Gibson’s Department Store on the corner of Main and Blunt Streets.
A portion of the store had collapsed like a house of cards under the tornado’s fury. Store officials immediately accounted for their employees and several customers who escaped with bruises, cuts and broken bones. However, they could not say for sure how many shoppers might have been inside the store when the tornado hit. Rescuers had continued to search through the layers of rubble late into the evening. At 11 p.m., Sheriff Lane called off all manual labor in the downtown area. Allowing rescuers to enter unstable buildings in the dark could simply lead to more trouble. Around midnight, the sheriff, an ambulance crew and several volunteers responded to a report of a person trapped inside Gibson’s. By this time, a second severe storm had pounded the city with heavy rain and straight-line winds, causing the strata of rubble to settle into even tighter layers.
In the pitch black stillness on Main Street, Sheriff Lane shined his flashlight into the tiny opening near the front of Gibson’s store where the victim was reportedly trapped. The eerie blue stream of light shone on a head of light brown, curly hair. The rest of the victim’s body was hidden in the rubble. Sheriff Lane called to the victim repeatedly with no response. Rescuers stood by with a stretcher while Sheriff Lane squeezed himself farther into the opening and reached for the victim, who he guessed to be a woman. He grasped a handful of her hair, but was disheartened to find that the top of her head felt cold. Still, there might be a chance that she was still alive. If only he could pull her through the narrow opening without setting off a further collapse. Stretching his hand wide over the top of her head and gathering a firm fistful of hair, he pulled as hard as he could. Outside the store, rescuers heard the sheriff emit a small scream followed by the only laughter they would hear from him that night. Sheriff Lane shimmied back out of the tunnel and tossed forth the fruits of his rescue attempt: a woman’s wig from a store mannequin.
Note: This account came from The Charles City Press' 1968 Charles City Tornado Blog (Submitted on May 16, 2008)
At the time I was 7 years old and lived on a farm west of Chatfield. I remember after coming home from school I walked across a field to where my Dad was repairing a fence. When we walked back to the house I looked up and saw things drifting down from the sky. I remember small tufts of pink fiberglass insulation and pieces of "tar" paper. If I remember correctly there was the yellow part of a sales receipt that drifted down, I think from a hardware store, but I don't recall where it was from (maybe Charles City?). The sky was overcast with cirrus clouds and the sky was darker to the south. I don't recall, but there may have been thunder in the distance because I distinctly remember saying to my Dad, "Maybe some birds got hit my lightning and they're falling down." when I first saw the stuff driftting down. I'm not certain of the time, it may have been between 4 and 5pm.
There was also at least one tornado in southeast Minnesota that day. I'm not sure where it originated, but it caused damage on the northwest edge of Canton, moved northeast to Newburg and continued on at least 5 or 6 miles. It damaged numerous farms, including my grandparent's north of Mabel. It also blew the windows out of a church about one half mile west of their farm. The tornado struck their farm shortly after 7pm.
I was born in Charles City in 1955. Later that year my folks moved my 3 brothers and me to Denver CO.
I remember coming home from school and my Mom freaking out watching grainy black and white t.v. images from Charles City.
I often wonder how our lifes would've been had we not moved to Denver.
I miss visiting Charles City and Greene where my Dad grew up.Last time was in 1989. I've never seen my birth town in the fall. Perhaps this coming fall! When is the peak coloring?
Good luck with the flooding this year. God bless you all.
Note: This account came from The Charles City Press' 1968 Charles City Tornado Blog (Submitted on June 14, 2008)
Around 4pm, I was at the junior high and had called my mother to come and pick me up. I had an armload of stuff and didn't want to walk home with it all. I normally would have been walking south down main street between 4:30 and 5pm. By 4:30, we stopped at Trowbridges. As I waited in the parking lot for my mother's return, I remember how very hot and muggy the air was. It was hard to breathe. When my mother came back to the car, we headed straight home to Johnson Street, one block north of Jefferson school.
The radio was talking about seeing funnel clouds. Not being very concerned, I stood outside watching the dark clouds. Then it hailed and the hail stones were as big as baseballs! I grabbed a plastic bag and started collecting some to put in the freezer. Just then, mom said she thought she heard a train and we could hear a distant rumble and roaring. At that moment, the radio announcer yelled to get to shelter..it's here...and the radio went dead. Mom and I rushed to the basement and my ears were popping and I felt pressure. We could hear thing banging and thumping around us and as suddenly as it started, it stopped. We crept up the stairs to find our home still standing. Our front door hadn't latched properly so that it blew open and the livingroom curtains were all twisted...like someone had stood there and wrapped them in a circle.
Margaret (Garner) Dunston
When the May 15 tornado struck First Methodist Church, Dixie Fox knew she had to protect her children, even if that meant she would be in harm’s way. Fox was with a church group out at Wildwood when a neighbor informed her of the incoming storm. She hurried back to First Methodist Church, and was waiting obtain more information from the minister when she “heard an explosion,” which immediately caused her to take her group of children towards the basement.
“For some reason or other, we didn’t go to the basement. We turned and ended up in an entryway,” she remembered
In the small space, Fox and her group — which included two of her own children, daughter DeDi, 4, and son Dave, 5 — crammed into a corner in an effort to best avoid a hazard on the other side of the room.
“There was a great big window just opposite of us, and when the storm hit, it was so loud. I yelled for DeDi and they yelled back for me, and even though we were on top of each other, we had to scream to hear each other.”
Dixie realized Dave was left facing the window under the pile. She positioned herself the best she could to block flying debris. Dave was uninjured after the tornado blew apart the window.
“It was a miracle that something didn’t hit him because I thought Iwas gone because things kept hitting me,” Dixie said.
Eventually, Dixie had to have glass hand-picked out of her back. However, she first realized the gravity of the situation when she walked towards her home on Cedar Street.
As she was walking, she recalled seeing people walking from Main Street with “blood all over.” The old fire whistle slowly whined in the distance before it died as the tornado left the area.
“I had to carry DeDi all the way home,” Dixie said. “I thought that everything was going to be fine, but when I turned the corner I looked at the block across the street and it was just annhilated.
“A neighbor told me not to go any further, and I burst out bawling — I was in shock.”
Her house, which had just been completed after 13 years of building, had sustained major damage.
Note: This account came from The Charles City Press' 1968 Charles City Tornado Blog (Submitted on May 16, 2008)
On May 15, 1968, I was a senior at Nashua High School getting ready for our senior prom, which was scheduled for May 17th at Club Iowa. I remember being outside that day for gym class and the weather was unseasonably hot. My girlfriend, Norma Ridder, and I were planning on coming to Charles City after school and my mother said there were storm warnings out and we could not go. We were upset, but glad we listened to her.
After the storm passed, I remember trying to get into town with my family and checking on my grandmother who lived on Salzer Street. We were stopped and asked where she lived and being told that that part of town had not been hit and that she was safe. My other grandparents were not so fortunate. Heine and Emma Mohring lived north of town and their entire farm was hit, the only building left was the house. Gone were the chicken houses where I had gathered eggs, the red barn where I played in the hay loft, the grainery where I had a play house, and the rest of the buildings so familiar to my childhood. Grandma had watched the barn go and then headed for the root cellar for safety.
My memories include the stillness, the hail and the rain. I remember listening to KCHA that night, the static, and panic in the announcer’s voice.
The following days and months were of disbelief that the town we had known and knew so well was gone forever and all that was left were our memories of how it was before the storm. As for the prom, it did go on, just as our lives did. The beauty parlor, I believe it was the Golden Curl, where all of my friends and I were to get our hair done was gone, we all got together and did each other’s hair. It was held in the Nashua High School Gym and not Club Iowa. Graduation day came and went in the following weeks.
Karla (Schmitt) Goddard
Note: This account came from The Charles City Press' 1968 Charles City Tornado Blog (Submitted on May 15, 2008)
At the age of 25, Jim Hilgendorf plunged right into the middle of the carnage that followed the tornado. As a member of an ambulance crew, Hilgendorf and Wes Banks were out on a call when the tornado was bearing down on Charles City. They got to a basement before the twister passed through, but when they re-emerged they had work to do. Hilgendorf and Banks drove the ambulance down Gilbert Street until they reached the courthouse.“We looked across (the river) and it was a war zone,” Hilgendorf recalled. The ambulance crew maneuvered their vehicle across the river to offer aid. “We picked up our first person right about where City Hall is now,” Hilgendorf said. “We picked up a lot more than one person.” To get from the downtown area to the hospital, they had to cut across yards to avoid downed trees and power lines. While at the hospital, things were thrown into a frenzy.“I saw one guy who was brought in on a door,” Hilgendorf remembered. That night, Hilgendorf and Banks worked about 4-5 extra hours, and dealt with a variety of injuries. “We had some pretty bad ones,” he said. The tornado did put a strain on the town’s medical resources, but Hilgendorf cited an impressive volunteer effort that kept emergency services operational. “You couldn’t believe the help that poured into this town, it was really something.”
Note: This account came from The Charles City Press' 1968 Charles City Tornado Blog (Submitted on May 16, 2008)
I survived the Charles City May 15, 1968 tornado and feel very lucky to have done so. This event so traumatized me that I can vividly remember it today like it was just yesterday and probably will for the rest of my life. I was 15 at that time and a paper carrier for the Charles City Press who later covered my story once the paper office was back up and running again. I'm not sure of that date, but have an original copy of it in my scrapbook. My route was the Cedar Terrace apartments on the south side of the river. That day was very unusual, very hot and humid and nothing like normal Iowa that time of year was. I was dreading running my delivery route because of the heat but I had a job to do and was going to get it done. I left the junior high around 3:30 and headed for the paper office to pick up my usual 48 papers for the 42 customers I had on my route.
I had waited a little more than a year to get this route. There were 18 quadruplex buildings with 72 units in a two block area, a paperboys dream route. That afternoon I hung around the paper office talking with the other carriers while folding my papers. This was a departure from my normal routine, but I wanted to do some money collecting and needed to wait for some of my customer's to arrive home from work. I finally got started on my route around 4:30 which was located just a few blocks from the paper office.
I ran the Greeless Circle, or west part of the complex first and then moved to the eastern, or Kneisel Circle portion, of the route next. At around quarter to 5, I was riding my bike and working the western side of Kneisel Circle when it began to rain very hard. I stopped my bike at apartment 49 to wait out the rain. These apartments had a small covering over each door and this is where I sought refuge.
It didn't stop raining, instead, it started to rain very hard and then hail stones the size of baseballs started to fall. They were smashing out car and home windows and cracking roofs and car metal all around me. I knew this was a sign a very strong high level winds and I became frightened enough to open the apartment door I was waiting by and proceed inside to seek shelter.
As I opened the door, I saw an elderly lady dressed in a nurse's uniform, Mrs. Hazel Burgess, pacing back and forth in the living room ringing her hands and repeating "oh my goodness, what should I do?" Hazel was not a customer of mine, and I didn't know her, but I was desperate to find a hiding place in that monolithic slab building knowing full well the danger I was in. I looked out the south-facing window and saw what appeared to be a solid dark gray wall of debris moving directly toward us. For a moment, I stood there and watched as the southern portion of the Trowbridge market roof flew up and then crashed down onto the north end of that building while cars in the parking lot where shuffled as if dominos on a table.
I spotted a heavy oak drop-leaf table and commented to Hazel "I don't know about you, but I'm going to hide under that table and you should join me." I started knocking the items off the top of the table with my hand believing it would make it lighter and began to drag it down the hallway. I was thinking that the center of the building was going to be sturdier and was going to be our best chance of surviving this. Even with the items removed from the top, the table was still very heavy. But tugging constantly, and assisted by my fear, I got it about halfway down the hall when the windows blew in. Hazel had been walking behind the dragging table and was in a state of panic, all of which I could hear and had been conscious of, but my focus was on getting this heavy table to a safe spot. At that moment, I grabbed her and shoved her under the table and slid under myself.
I looked up to see the walls sway in and out repeatedly and the roof began to disintegrate into thin air. Something hit me in the side of the face, so I put my hands over my head and tucked myself into a ball on my knees under the table. By this time, Hazel had grabbed my ankles and was squeezing then so tightly she was cutting off the circulation to my feet. The sound was deafening and the mayhem lasted for what seemed an eternity. Then it just suddenly stopped. I lifted my head thinking it was over and something stuck me in the head again. Evidently, it wasn't over; the center had just passed over us. I assumed the kneeling position again and the violence started again and lasted for another eternity.
When it finally stopped, I cautiously raised my head again and realized the entire roof, and most of the walls, were gone. The table was surrounded by debris and I felt completely beat up, but no blood anywhere and we were still alive. I crawled out from under the table and stood up. I watched the backside of the tornado moving north and realized I could see the mud bottom of the river, it had sucked all the water out of that section of the river! The black wall continued to churn and move north as I saw the water rushing in from both directions to fill the void left in the river bottom.
There was a very strange quiet directly afterwards. I could hear people yelling and crying out in pain all around me but my attention was caught by a whimpering that seemed just to my right. I climbed up the half section of wall to the adjacent apartment and spotted a lady with a very serious injury to her hand. I had noticed when I first entered the apartment that Hazel was wearing a nurse's uniform so I called out for her to help. Being frail, Hazel replied that she couldn't get out of her apartment. So I began to explain the situation to her. She looked around and produced a section of cloth and instructed me on applying a tourniquet to this woman's arm. I retrieved the cloth from her and completed the task of stopping the bleeding.
I then stood and surveyed the area. As far as I could see in all directions, was nothing but devastation. I started to wonder about my house and family and became very concerned. I looked for my bike and found the front wheel sticking out from under a fallen brick wall. Realizing this wasn't going to be an option, I told Hazel I needed to go home and find my family. She acknowledged my concern and told me to go, they would be fine as help was surely on the way. I ran the entire distance back to my house at 100 Charles Street.
When I arrived home, my sister was standing in the front yard crying but our house was undamaged and just like I had left it that morning. My 13 year old brother showed up a few minutes later and my mother came running up to the house limping wearing one high heel shortly there after. We gathered there in the front yard and I realized all had made it through uninjured knowing my father was out of town that day. I was the worst of the group with an insulation and mud coating on one side of my body and several bruises, but no severe cuts and fine past that.
I returned to Cedar Terrace the next day only to find one of the victims had been found in that same area. At that moment, I realized just how lucky I really was to have made it through. My younger brother and I worked for the Civil defense for the next few weeks clearing roadways and helping wherever we were needed.
I lost my entire paper route that day and never got another one to replace it. Our family moved away from Charles City the next year and my family, or what survives today, is scattered to the four winds.
When it seemed to pass, Dad said he was going to check on our mother, who worked at Trowbridge Grocery Store (Schueth Ace Hardware stands there now) and see if anyone needed help. Dad meet up with one of the Grant brothers on the way and together they started to clear away fallen debris. Mr. Grant's home had been damaged in the tornado but he was out helping remove heavy debris with his equipment from work.
My mom remembers the gentleman coming in from the gas station and yelling the tornado was on it's way and to take cover! My mom announced over the PA system that the tornado was coming and for everyone to head to the basement. She also remembers all the flying merchandise in the store as she descended the stairs. She had her glasses blown off and someone helped her find them in the debris on the steps. She also remembers being lifted off the ground as she went down the steps to the basement and just making it down there before it was all over!
My oldest brother, Steve had been at the high school for track and tried to get home. He decided to back track and go to where dad worked at the old highway commission building just off 8th Avenue and J Street. They put him to work manning the radios.
As a whole, the town was very lucky we lost only 13 people when you look at the damage it caused in the homes, businesses, churches, schools, and the downtown area. We could have lost a lot more lives if the tornado had come during the school hours also.
It was amazing to watch everyone working together to help out their neighbors and strangers! When ever the weather turns really bad or dark there are still a lot of people who flash back to that day. It has taken a long time for some of us to get over that nervousness and not be completely scared of storms.
I was 11 years old and lived in New Hampton with my folks. My grandparents, Delbert and Naomi Anderson lived in Charles City on Sprigg Street. After the tornado struck we had no way of knowing if they were okay and my mom was beside herself with worry. My brother and I stayed with other family members in New Hampton while mom and dad drove to Charles City to check on grandma and grandpa. It was evening by the time they got to town. The National Guard initially would not let them into town but after some convincing did allow them through. My grandparents house was spared but they lost many beautiful trees on their street. They were very fortunate. My parents were visibly shaken from what they witnessed that night and the vision always stayed with them. They said it was as if they had entered a war zone. It was the worst thing they had ever seen.
I was 8 yrs. old at the time, but I still remember that afternoon vividly. Running across the street and into my grandparents basement, the roaring freight train noise followed by complete silence. The huge tree in our front yard across the street laying next to the house. We were among the fortunate that didn't suffer any significant damage. I remember laying on the floor in the dark that night listening to sirens and chainsaws. To this day I get a little freaked out when the sky gets that awful green color.
Life circumstances can change in an instant. On April 15, 1968 Elaine Mead went from a carefree high school senior to fearing for her life in under an hour. Mead was a senior at Charles City High School “anxiously awaiting to get out of school early before everyone else.” On Wednesday, April 15, 1968, Mead and a friend were running errands around town after school. With the end of school looming, she was happily going about her daily routine, and chose to ignore some of the early weather warnings.
“We had heard on the radio that a tornado was coming, but being a senior we didn’t believe anything would happen,” she said.
After completing her errands, Mead and her friend noticed that Main Street had cleared out and was eerily calm. They became nervous and started to leave town, going down Main Street and taking a left onto Gilbert.
“Around Dairy Queen we looked over the trees and saw this huge black thing — it didn’t look like a skinny little tornado, it was more like a cloud with debris.
“All I knew to do was get out of the vehicle and lay down on low ground,” Mead recalled.
“I thought ‘I might be dying today.’ You just don’t know what to think really because of the fear.”
The edge of the tornado passed near enough to them to blow out windows in nearby buildings and uproot trees around them. Mead and her friend were able to head for the family farm west of Charles City without a scratch.
When they arrived at Mead’s home, Elaine told her parents what had happened and they returned to town.
“It was just like what I would think of being a war zone. The trees were all stripped and I remember seeing sizzling power lines on the ground. It was dark and eerie and you could see emergency lights flashing.
“It was amazing because you could not drive down a street because of all the trees. You just had to walk around everything and you saw people walking around in a daze kind of bloody and everyone was just shocked,” Mead remembered.
Mead also recalled that the mood at graduation that year was “a little more somber than it should have been.”
It was a warm and humid spring day. I was headed to Larson and Carr's attorneys office to sign the papers on my first house. I parked my 1960 Ford Starlinder in front of Doc Vollum's garage. We had been in the office, in the old Adrian Implement building less than 5 minutes when the secretary came in and said "it's coming". We got under this huge oak conference table and watched the roof lift up and drop down. It sounded like a freight train was running over us. Later, we went out to see the used car lot across the street with cars twisted up in a pile. Around the corner where I parked the second story of Doc Vollum's had collapsed on my car crushing it to the ground as well as a Sears service van that had pulled in behind it (the driver was killed). We walked to our new home on S. Iowa and hardly a branch was broken. I'll obviously never for get that day.
Note: This account came from The Charles City Press' 1968 Charles City Tornado Blog (Submitted on May 14, 2008)
As I read through the post I recognized several names that sparked many memories. Barb Fuls I had forgotten you were so young back on May 15th. We later lived only a couple blocks away from each other, you and Larry on 18th Avenue and the Nygaards on 19th Avenue. I also found it interesting that from the last blog posted, we apparently lived on the “right side” of the tracks!!
May 15th, 1968, 40 years ago, I was the mother of a 2 year old and expecting a new baby on May 30th. I had just returned from a medical appointment with Dr. Trefz and went to neighbors, Phil and Sharon Koenigs to get our son. The weather was oppressive, hot windy and the sky was getting funny looking. Gene came home and was going to drive across the street and pick us up to all be together at out house. Phil was working late at White Farm. As Gene backed the car into the Koenigs garage he saw the dirt rising and 18th Avenue being ravaged by the funnel. Sharon and I had taken the 3 kids to the basement and were waiting for Gene to get inside. He had brought the dog and the dog refused to go into the basement. He let the dog go and made it to the basement in time to lean over and shelter the rest of us under the stair way. The roar was deafening and the noise of breaking glass and the screeching of nails being ripped from the timbers was all we could hear. Then there was silence, the awful silence. As Gene straightened up and looked up all he saw was clear sky. The house was completely gone. All that remained of the Koenigs house was the stairway that we had taken refuge under. One by one Gene started looking us all over, Sharon had cuts, 5 month old Michael had cuts, Kevin was okay and I had a gaping wound in my right calf. As we climbed out of the basement we realize that the kids are barefoot and have no jackets so we can’t sit them down. Our car that was in the garage has a timber straight through it and where our house had stood was nothing. In fact the whole neighborhood was gone. And still the silence!
A pick up from the chemical plant lumbers up from the “wrong side” of the tracks and Gene hails it down to transport me to the hospital. We leave Kevin our 2 year son with Sharon Koenigs who is assisted with 3 kids to the water plant and eventually strangers take them to Austin Minnesota to be with Sharon’s parents.
Getting to the hospital took 2 hours in and out of streets blocked by trees. I am conscious and remember finally getting to the Main Street Bridge and saying that Charles City was going to get it’s redevelopment like it or not. Some of you may recall it had just been voted down. Once I was at the hospital and safe, Gene went to find our son. My stay at Charles City hospital was only a few hours, my injuries could not be handled in Charles City due to all the chaos. I was transported by ambulance to Mason City unbeknownst to Gene. While I am in surgery, Gene and Phil Koenigs hitch hiked to Stacyville to get Phils parents car, our cars were damaged. After a frantic night Gene and I were finally reunited at Mason City Mercy Hospital. We were alive, we had nothing but each other and at this point that was all that counted.
On May 16th, 24 hours after the tornado we were blessed with a healthy baby girl, Mary Beth. Guess who turned 40 this year?
People helping people, this is the lesson to be remembered along with the pain and memories. Dean Kline and his family took our family of 5, my sister came to assist with kids since I was in a cast for 3 months, into his home for almost 2 months, Milo Molitor and his family found us a place to live, the nursing staff at Mercy Hospital organized and gave us clothes and toys for the kids, The Koenigs Family in Stacyville helped with the clean up at the addresses on 19th Avenue, SBA financed our home so we could rebuild, Red Cross gave us a table and chairs, clothes. Doesn’t sound like much? Remember it is all we had. Faith, friends and an uncertain future lay ahead.
Oh yes, the dog was found and went to live in Minneapolis with his former owner, My great Aunt Vivian from Milwaukee came to visit me in Mason City. She was in Charles City for a funeral. Mrs. Leach who died was her brother’s wife. Gene and I have lived in Texas, Ohio and Delaware and moved back to Denton Texas 3 years ago. We have 5 Grand kids and believe me they all know what bad weather looks like, they know to get their shoes and a jacket, stay calm and do what your parents say.
We will never forget that day nor will we ever forget those who helped us get back on our feet. Dean and Milo are no longer with us but we still have contact with their family members, those families that made us part of their family. Pass it on, it feels good!
Karen and Gene Nygaard
Note: This account came from The Charles City Press' 1968 Charles City Tornado Blog (Submitted on June 14, 2008)
Note: This account came from The Charles City Press' 1968 Charles City Tornado Blog (Submitted on April 25, 2008)
Note: This account came from The Charles City Press' 1968 Charles City Tornado Blog (Submitted on June 15, 2008)
I was 10 the day the tornado hit Charles City. I will never forget that day nor will I ever fell safe when a storm brews up. Our house was located on Grand and 15th. We had an older two story home until the tornado hit. The tornado shitfted our house off its foundation, turned it, took one half and then left it. My mom and us five kids were in the S.W corner of the basement, had we been in the N.E, we would not have been so lucky, that is where alot of the wreakage come in. My dad, made it to the bottom of the steps but with the force of the wind, he could not move. We were very blessed that day that we all survived monster. My Dad drove a Comet back and forth to work and after the tornado, he found 3 different colored wigs in his car. And talk about never getting away from your bills, one of mom and dad's gas bills was found in the front yard of a reporter in Chatfield, MN about 80 miles form Charles City. The reporter got in touch with mom and dad and asked if she could come down and do a story on us, which she did, the story was on the front page of her hometown paper along with a picture of our house, oh and by the way, she also did returned the bill!!! I also remember, my grandma T and three uncles from Il, came as soon as they heard about the tornado but were stopped just outside of the city limits by the National Guard, they had supplies with them such as blanekts, sheets, food ect. that would eventually let them in plus my mom had to go to them and let the N.G know they were who they said they were. It was gut wrenching for them not knowing if we were alive, missing or among the dead. I dont remember much of what Charles City looked like after the tornado except walking down the middle fo the road afterwards and needing to watch for live wires and hearing people crying and seeing our neighbor being carried out of her house on a door made as a strecher. As I was growing up, the smell of mud use to be one of the worst smells for me, I could not figure it out until I was talking with my mom and it dawned on me that smell was the smell right after the tornado...isnt it funny how things stick in our heads after so many years. When our kids were growing up, I was so afraid I would not be able to protect them from such a storm that I would make myself sick....although I got my house cleaning done (that was how I would try to stay calm and keep the kids from knowing how scared I was...didnt always work). To this day, if the clouds get dark, my eyes are open to the sky and my phone calls start to my adult kids to make sure they are watching. I will admit, I am a basket case when it comes to storms and I am very lucky that my family understands and dont fuss too much about the phone calls.
Note: This account came from The Charles City Press' 1968 Charles City Tornado Blog (Submitted on June 17, 2008)
I had just celebrated my 12th birthday when the storm struck. I originally moved to Charles City with my family in February, 1962 therefore I had six years of life in the “old” Charles City prior to the storm.
My father, now retired, was an independent insurance agent in Charles City which brought the storm into our home for years after it struck. Getting people “back on their feet” was a big thing in the Sisson household.
As I recall, the spring of 1968 was very early. Photos of trees ‘in the distance” will clearly show foliage usually found in very late May or early June was evident. My guess is, spring was two and a half to three weeks ahead of schedule.
May 15, 1968 was a Wednesday. I clearly remember having breakfast that morning. It started sunny, windy and very warm. I would guess on my walk to Lincoln Elementary School, a distance of two blocks, the temperature at 8 AM was about 70 degrees and a strong southeast wind was at my back.
May 15, 1968 was a big day in Charles City for all of the fifth and sixth graders. It was the annual grade school track meet which started at noon with a picnic, followed by the competition. This event was held at the College Grounds on Clark Street about a dozen blocks east of the area to be devastated five hours later. Five grade schools, Lincoln, Jefferson, Central, McKinley and Washington Elementary participated in the fun. Central, McKinley and Washington were destroyed, the first two never to reopen.
I recall the wind switching to more of a southerly direction as the afternoon progressed and it got quite warm. My guess would be it reached nearly 85 degrees and it was very muggy. Winds were very gusty and the running course at the College Grounds was laid out east to west. We figured they did that because running to the south for kids of that age would have been hard that day.
When the track meet was over, we walked back to Lincoln school with the wind at our back. It was warm and I remember getting to the school (it had no air conditioning) and all of the windows at the school were wide open. I thought to myself, the student in K thru 4th must have roasted that afternoon and I was glad I had been outdoors.
Classes ended shortly after 330 PM then. We actually got back to the school about 315 PM and got to leave early. My brother and sister had to stay and I thought that was pretty neat.
I clearly remember walking two blocks home to 714 Third Avenue where we lived. It was warm, gusting winds and very muggy. It was sunny and hazy.
My brother and sister got home about 345 PM and at 4 PM we turned on “Bart’s Clubhouse”, a children’s show hosted by the KGLO-TV weatherman, Bart Curran. It was the typical, after school cartoon program for kids our age to watch.
I remember about 425 PM they broke into the show and reported a tornado sighting near Hansell, Iowa in eastern Franklin County. They reported the storm was moving northeast and people should pay attention to the TV. “Bart’s Clubhouse” then came on the air.
I have always been interested in the weather, so I quit watching the show and went outside. I remember my sister, in the 4th grade at that time, yelling outside and telling me the TV said the tornado was by Marble Rock. About the same time, I’d guess 435 PM, my father came home from work proclaiming we needed to keep an eye out for the weather. My father and I stood outside and my mother, brother (in 3rd grade) and sister stayed inside the house.
When my father pulled in the driveway, we stood there for just a few minutes looking at the sky. It was getting black in the southwest. I remember looking straight up in the air and seeing these really strange clouds bulging down toward the ground. Something I have seen since, but never quite the way these looked. Just a minute or two later, about 445 PM it hailed. The size was enormous. I remember them coming down and splatting on our driveway and thundering off of my fathers International Scout. We ran up on the covered front porch which faced due west down Third Avenue.
About this time my mother yelled outside we’d better go to the basement as a tornado had been spotted on Charles Street on the far southwest side of Charles City. I recall my father saying Salsbury Laboratories was out there and he hoped it didn’t get hit as he had it insured. My father and I stayed on the porch and watched. The other three in our family went to the basement and hid in a “cubby hole’ we had in the southwest corner of the basement.
As my father and I watched we notice the clouds twisting, rotating from the southeast to the northwest. It was amazing to watch because there was very little breeze on the ground but still looked so violent. As we looked to the west above the treetops we could see “stuff” flying around in the air. I thought it was leaves and sticks, but would realize later it was huge chunks of debris. The wind then came up and blew very hard and we headed to the basement. I remember watching out a window that faced north and watching the tress move violently. The winds lasted a couple of minutes and then stopped.
We went upstairs to find limbs and leaves strewn about. My father said, let’s load up and go see what happened and we headed down Third Avenue toward downtown Charles City. I remember seeing a small hard Maple Tree on the Frudden property at the corner of 4th Avenue and G Street had blown over. It was only about 6” in diameter, but it was down and I thought, wow, a tree was blown down. I think about that tree every time I drive by that spot. It was the first damage I’d seen, but was nothing compared to what I would find seven blocks further west.
Our entire family and a neighbor, Sally Rice, were loaded in my father’s International Scout. Sally had three children in various locations all over town. Her husband, Dan, was the manager of our local utility, Iowa Public Service Company, and was at his office on Main Street. You can imagine how his life changed as the provider of utilities to the community of nearly 10,000.
When we reached the corner of Third and Grand Avenue, the steeple of the Immaculate Conception Catholic Church had crashed down through the roof and left a huge hole. We couldn’t believe our eyes as we looked up at the damage…bricks strewn all over the front steps and street as well. It was about this time when everyone in our vehicle looked west toward downtown Charles City and we were aghast. It looked like a bomb had hit. All I remember is seeing horrible destruction, people wandering in shock and streets clogged with debris, live wires and silence…this huge mess and no noise. It was truly “unbelievable”.
Mrs. Rice immediately feared for the life of her family. Some were located on the other side of the river and there was no way to walk or drive into the devastated area. Sally was frantic. Her children had been invited to an outdoor birthday party. My father decided to drive east, then south and back west of Charles City. During the approximately 20 mile drive to travel about half a mile as the crow flies, I specifically recall another intense thunderstorm moving in from the southwest. I would guess this would have been about 6 PM. The sky was black and there was vivid lightning. It was still warm and muggy.
We reached the south side of Charles City and went to the hospital located on the south side of town. Upon arrival cars were wrecked all over the lawn, but amazingly the hospital received little damage, yet a farmstead a half mile or so to the south was flattened. It was about this time we received word, I can’t recall how, but Mrs. Rice’s children were safe. We headed back home on the same route. I recall heavy rain, lots of thunder and lightning and the temperature getting steadily colder.
I remember the wail of sirens, the sound of chain saws and people yelling. About 930 PM that night my father, whose insurance office had been destroyed, realized how his life had changed and decided to load the three of us kids in a car with a neighbor who was headed out of town with his children and we went to my grandparents to stay for a few days in Waterloo, 50 miles to the south. When we were leaving town, I recall our dusk to dawn radio station was still on the air which seemed strange is it was dark. The announcer was reading the names of people who were safe, those of the injured and names of those who had died. I recall the radio pleading for blood, blankets and supplies, chain saws, heavy equipment and food. They were also reporting on shelter locations and talking about the National Guard and a curfew. It was strange to hear. I remember as we traveled south, the radio station fading out and arriving in Waterloo in time to watch the 10 PM news and the sketchy reports of which I had specifics of what we had experienced a few hours earlier.
Here are a few specific things I recall:
The big grain elevator had been destroyed on the south side of Charles City which resulted in corn being distributed all over town. The next summer corn was growing everywhere in town, out of cracks in sidewalks, out of the bark in the few trees left and along the street in the parking area. It was strange.
Businesses had to build protected walkways from the curb to the door for customer access as debris fell to the street from the tops of the building once in a while.
Cars, thousands of them, were destroyed and hauled to Lions Field. I remember them being stacked like cord wood on the site of the old football field.
The First Baptist Church had a long 2” by 4” driven into the brick near the entrance. I remember it looked like an arrow sticking out of the brick. It seemed like there were always people standing looking at it in amazement.
Any trees left standing were full of metal of all kinds. Limbs caught flying objects, some of which are still found to this day when they are trimmed or cut down.
I remember a never ending plume of smoke and fire at the Shaw Avenue dump site as debris was hauled and burned continuously for months following the storm.
About a week after the storm someone took me (I can’t remember who) to the top floor of the St. Charles Hotel which was destroyed. I remember the rooms were a mess, some with bed mattresses half pulled out the windows. In the far northwest corner of the top floor the walls had been peeled off and I recall seeing maybe a thousand robins splattered on the walls and laying on the floor. A flock must have gotten caught in the wind. My father and mother would have been mad if they knew I went up there so I never told them.
I remember everyone was amazed and talked about how the churches and schools were destroyed but the bars escaped damage. People said this was because the bars were open and the churches and schools weren’t.
I remember seeing all of the clocks stopped at 8 minutes til 5 PM.
At the Jim and Diane Crandall residence on the north end of Charles City all I remember them having left were a few pipes sticking out of the floor and the different colors of carpet on the floors, the bathtub remained, but the toilet and vanity were gone. I remember if it wasn’t fastened down it was gone. In their backyard bulldozers had pushed all of the debris to the center of the block into a huge pile. I recall seeing washers and dryers, freezers, lawn mowers and lots of things in the pile that seemed 30 to 40 feet tall. Every block in the devastated area had a pile like this.
I was 2 when the tornado hit. We were living 5 miles north of Charles City in a rented farm house. My dad was working in town for Dick's 66(the old Buy Low by Mcdonalds). He saw it coming and grabbed the money outof the register and stuffed it into a bank bag and ran across the street and got underneath a park bench that was cemented to the ground next to the river and hung on for dear life. Hr escaped with minor cuts and scratches. Back at home we lost everything except for the north wall of the house. The door going through that wall was to mom and dads bedroom, on the otherside of the door was pair of overalls hanging on a hook that were untouched(amazing how it picks and chooses what to destroy). We were selected to recieve help from Max Anus fron New York gave my mom and dad a check for a down payment on the house they lived in for almost 40 years(where I grew up on 18th Ave.). That was about the best thing that happened after that day in May.
Note: This account came from The Charles City Press' 1968 Charles City Tornado Blog (Submitted on June 8, 2008)
I was seven years old on that day in 1968 and I remember vividly the whole day. I was attending McKinley School in the first grade and it was a very hot, windy day, as I recall. After school, I can recall walking past leon & Genes Texaco to stop and gawk at the wrecks they had recently towed in.
I was walking across the relatively new Brantingham Bridge on my way home. We had just moved only three days prior to the corner of Fourth and B Street right on Highway 18. I used to live on South Johnson street before that.
As I did about every afternoon, I switched on the ol' black and white T.V. to see Bart's Clubhouse. I recall Bart Curran, who was the stations weather man, telling us that a storm had hit Oelwein and I recall that he had an Iowa map on his knee with a ruler laying on it. He said, "Kids, if you live on either side of where I'm holding this ruler on the map, you have a storm coming your way." Well, it was laid right smack dab through Charles City.
I was pretty agitated. I was telling my folks we had better do something, but both Mom and dad were incredulous and said to keep calm.
Well, things started looking bad. It got dark. Then it got darker. The rain started in, and then hail. Lots of hail bouncing off the highway, as I remember. Then I was called to the supper table as we ate right at 5:00 pm sharp every night.
Mom was serving up the fried eggs, beans, and toast when the lights went out. I looked out the open side door through the screen to see a passing car go by. Mom said, "There's funny clouds going round and round..."as she peered out side. Dad yelled, "Get in the basement!" I was the first to the door, but as I had never been in that basement yet, I pulled up and stopped, peering into the dank blackness. My Dad grabbed me and I turned for one last look out that door to see a huge Basswood tree falling across the highway. The rumble, rumble, rumble down the stairs and crouching near a basement window. My Dad was peering out tentatively. Mom was holding my younger sister Laurie who was crying. We could hear crashing and glass breaking upstairs.
What seemed like an hour, but was in reality about a minute, passed and I recall the thunderous roar subsiding, a high pitched whistling noise fading away, and then brilliant sunshine!
We crawled out from that basement to a world that was forever etched into my memory banks.
Walking around town, I saw the car that had passed our house just before the tornado hit smashed on it's top. I was shocked thinking that the person driving it might still be in that car, dead....or worse!
Clothes flapping in the trees, dazed and confused people wandering around, and total devastaion everywhere just west of our resisdence. It was amazing!
We had kerosene lamps on that night and for several nights afterwards. When we finally went to bed, I recall looking out my window seeing my Dad directing traffic on Highway 18 through our yard to help cars avoid the hot wire laying in the road. Sirens screamed all night long. I recall having a very difficult time falling asleep.
In the days afterwards we watched bull dozers knock stuff down and cart it away in dump trucks. The utility man came by about a week later to check on our gas and electric service. He had many stories to tell of how people had gone through that day that I'll never forget.
I thought it was a bad deal since as a kid, you couldn't go play anywhere for parents fear of you getting cut, knocked out by falling debris, or falling into open basements and refuse piles.
I remember people wearing "Tornado City" sweatshirts and t-shirts in the years just after the storm. I wonder if anybody still has one of those.
In later years, it was always cool to scavenge for bicycles that were strewn about the edges and wild places around Charles city. This was the beginnings of my love for cycling, and I am a bicycle mechanic now in 2008.
Dark skies still bring on that ominous feeling. I suppose I'll never get over that.
Note: This account came from The Charles City Press' 1968 Charles City Tornado Blog (Submitted on May 15, 2008)
I was six months pregnant at the time and I wasn't riding out the storm in the basement of her home on Jackson Street. I was going to pick up my husband, Tracy, from work at The Oliver Corporation, a tractor manufacturer in town. That Wednesday was Tracy's last day, as he was being laid off. While I waited in my white 1966 Plymouth Valiant near the door my husband usually exited, it began raining. The sky looked ominous. Sensing trouble, she turned on the radio to hear the announcer there was a funnel cloud sighted over Charles City's south side.
Being on the north side of town, I thought I had time to warn the people inside The Oliver Corporation building. I remember going in, but the workers thought nothing of her warning. So I went back out to her car to wait for Tracy. That's when all the horror started.
One of Tracy's friends and co-workers, Jerry Fifer, came out to tell me that my husband was waiting inside the personnel office door, about a block away from where I was parked. As I started driving through the parking lot, Fifer jumped right in front of the car to warn me that I was driving right into the tornado. "He jumped into the car and said, 'There it is!"' I would have driven right into it. I didn't see it, it was so massive. It was just like a big black tidal wave. I put the car into reverse to get away from the twister. As we were going backwards, Fifer saw a brick wall collapsing behind them, so I immediately stopped and then went forward to avoid that. Having avoided the most pressing dangers, I stopped the car. I never took the car out of gear. I had my foot on the brake the whole time and I was praying like you would not believe.
To avoid getting struck by the broken glass of the windows, we rolled our windows down, put on their seat belts and hung on to each other and the steering wheel. Fifer covered me with my raincoat to protect me from flying debris. And with that, we rose off the ground, I say 15 feet maximum. I had nothing to be fearful of because I hadn't witnessed it. I was underneath the raincoat. I never realize how far off the ground the twister actually took us. I didn't find out until 1992 in chatting with Fifer that we were four stories off the ground, high enough to see the top of the smokestack of a nearby building.
With that, I almost got sick to my stomach. Every time I think of this, I get shaky. It's not a pleasant thought. And when we came down, we came down with a thud. I went into labor pains a few hours later, but they were false."
When the tornado had passed, we got out of the car to survey the damage. The Plymouth had four blown tires from the impact, many dents and scratches from the hall and other flying debris. A downed light pole nearly missed hitting the car. All of the car's windows, including those rolled down, were unbroken.
After finding their 8-year-old daughter, Sally, unharmed by the storm at my mother's house, they went home, but couldn't find it. All that was left was rubble. No walls remained standing. It looked like a street bombed out after Hiroshima. We didn't know where we were. There was nothing left.
The only death suffered close to the family was their dog, Clancy. However, I knew six of the 13 folks that lost their lives. Among those were Harry Hall, 65, the washing machine repairman at Sears. Gus Mertens, 67, the shoe repairman, also lost his life. Murray Loomer, 70, who was the Sweet's neighbor on Jackson Street, was found dead on his front porch.
All of Charles City's eight churches sustained some damage. The downtown mall was badly damaged, as was Cedar Terrace, an apartment complex for the elderly. The complex was later rebuilt on the same site.Most of our worldly possessions were destroyed, including Sally's extensive Barbie collection. Sally had all the Barbie amenities--the suitcases, all the outfits, and even the hair grooming tools. However, I knew we had the best thing left. I never ever shed a tear because I was just so thankful that we were alive. If we ever won the lottery, this was it.
We couldn't rebuild on the site of their old home because the city rezoned the area, thinking there would likely be commercial development in that area. Where their house once stood now stands storage garages.
If we happen to drive up that street, I always think of it. It was a strange day. And every time I hear the tornado sirens, it makes me think of that day. Jerry Fifer is my angel. If he had not stopped me, I would have driven right into it. For as long as I am alive the memories of that tornado will be me. I started to watch (the movie) Twister in 1998 and I shut it off. I couldn't go through it.
Rosemary Byrne Yokoi
Note: This account came from The Charles City Press' 1968 Charles City Tornado Blog (Submitted on May 13, 2008)
Oelwein Tornado Accounts:
I was in junior high school in Cedar Rapids in 1968. There was the most incredible display of mammatus I have ever seen, or ever will see (an that's not just because I'm living in Arizona now). A friend of mine dated a girl from Oelwein. She survived by getting into a closet.
I was at the firehouse on the late afternoon of May 15, 1968 when the tornado struck. But Rundle says there was no warning that a devastating storm was coming. He says it was actually two tornadoes that started south of Oelwein and then merged into one and headed into Oelwein.
I started to see hail come down, "and the next thing I knew people were running past the station looking over their shoulders." One woman died in the storm.
We rescued the woman from an apartment in the downtown area, as she had fallen down between two floors when the chimney blew out. The woman was taken to the Oelwein hospital where she later died from her injuries. The storm caused massive damage to the do wntown and eastern side of the city. They talked about damage in the millions at the time, and now it would be in the tens of millions in today's dollars.
The tornado went right down railroad tracks through town and by the fire station. All the downed trees kept firefighters from getting a lot of equipment in the residential areas, and they ended up walking to rescues and climbing through trees.
The tornado is still talked about. You can't get a much worse tornado, and they always talk about the Oelwein tornado when he goes to weather training classes. The warning systems and radar are much more sophisticated today, but at the time there wasn't much time for anyone to be ready for the storm.
Wally Rundle, Oelwein Fire Chief
Note: This account came from an interview with Roger King, KOEL in 2006