A severe storm warning was issued in western North Dakota at 8:50 p.m. on July 4, 1978. At 9:30 p.m. radar picked up a funnel cloud about 10 miles northwest of Elgin, a small farming community about 30 miles south of my former hometown, Glen Ullin, North Dakota.
A prairie twister can leave an area devastated in a very short time. The residents of Elgin had only two to four minutes warning before the funnel-shaped cloud struck. People didn't know where to turn. Five people were killed--two when the twister blew their pickup apart. Thirty other people were injured in the tornado's path. Many people lost the work of a lifetime.
My husband Ervin Pietz and I were enroute from Pomona, CA, to Bismarck on Frontier Airlines that night, having changed planes at Rapid City, South Dakota. As we looked out the windows, all we could see was darkness. Although swirling clouds surrounded us, it was eerie and quiet inside the plane. The air felt like it was charged with electricity. Dazzling forked lightning flashed through the clouds and lit up the navy blue sky.
As we watched the spectacular display of zigzag lightning, the pilot announced on the intercom, "Welcome to Frontier Airlines, we know it's the Fourth of July but it wasn't our plan to put on this dramatic display of fireworks you're now seeing." He assured us to sit back, relax and enjoy the show!
When we arrived at the Bismarck airport, the wind was so strong the pilot had trouble landing. Inside the terminal, desks and benches were being moved to the center of the floor as the fierce winds were threatening to implode the plate glass windows. An announcer informed us to forget about our baggage; it would be delivered to our destination the next day.
My sister Rose and her husband John Erhart were there to meet us and take us to their home in Glen Ullin, 50 miles west of Bismarck. The winds had died down but the power was off everywhere. It was strange driving along Interstate 94 in the dark not seeing any street lights or homes lit up. Listening to the car radio, we heard about the damage in Elgin. A number of ambulances transporting the injured sped past us on the way to Bismarck hospitals.
The next day we drove to Elgin to view the devastation. My father was with us and he couldn't believe the destruction. He had never seen anything like it in his 86 years.
We drove to the home of our friends, Walt and Ethel Huber, who lived on a farm southeast of Carson which is the county seat where in the 1940's I worked for States Attorney Emil Giese and Ervin was athletic coach and taught junior high school classes. The tornado had cut a swath a distance of 20 to 30 miles east of Elgin. The Huber farm lay in its path and was completely demolished. Their house was gone, blown off its foundation; all that remained was the gaping hole that was the basement with everything it contained suctioned out. Wooden boards were smashed to smithereens with the nails and splinters imbedded in the haystack east of the house. They had just bought wood paneling to finish off the basement walls. Those long slats of lumber were sucked out as if they were toothpicks. But miraculously, a swan-shaped ceramic planter sitting on the cement steps was left undisturbed--devastation swirled around it and yet it stood intact.
Thirty-some head of cattle were nestled in a slew protected by a hill about a mile from the Huber farm and were not harmed. The bull was in a lean-to shed, dazed but unharmed. The dog which was in the shed with the bull was limping around, later his injuries were too much and they had to put him to sleep.
From the time Walt and Ethel first heard the warning, they had approximately four minutes to get into the basement. They scrambled to get into that southwest corner which is supposed to be the safest place in a storm. They crouched there, tightly embracing each other until the fury passed. Afterwards, they thanked God to be alive. Walt sustained a deep cut on his arm, their faces were red and swollen but, fortunately, they suffered no life-threatening injuries, which was a miracle.
We tried to be of help as Walt and Ethel wandered around patiently picking up debris. Their brother-in-law Art Raeshke took Ervin and me along and we drove around trying to find anything we could. We came across a medicine cabinet that had been hurled into an open field with its contents strewn around. Large appliances such as the freezer had completely disappeared. To this day, they think that it was sucked into a lake and unless they drain the lake, there it will remain. They did find some frozen roasts and other frozen food packages out in the pasture.
Walt and Ethel had just paid off the remaining indebtedness on the farm. Walt's 50th birthday was on that day, July 5th, and they thought they were on easy street and could relax a little and enjoy life. But, alas, it was not to be.
Fortunately, they had relatives who took them in. Ethel's family, the Steinleys, and Walt's sister and her husband, Lenora and Art Raeshke who owned Carson Pharmacy, were of tremendous help during that
Not a shred of their belongings was left. Furniture, dishes, mementos, everything was gone. Courageously, they started to rebuild almost immediately. Relatives and friends began to replace the family pictures. What was the most time-consuming to replace were their records: farm records, financial and tax records, medical information--all the things that are necessary to continue operating.
Still, another miracle happened. Ethel had a habit of placing her wedding ring on the ledge of the sink when she washed dishes or went out to do chores. She was bemoaning the fact that it too got blown away, never to be found. Then a few days later, her 10-year old niece was walking around the yard, kicking up dirt. She saw a shiny object, stooped down and picked it up--it was Ethel's wedding ring.
A sight comical but sad to see were the chickens. The few that escaped were wandering around searching for food with not a stitch of feathers on them--plucked completely nude.
As we drove away that day, we could see the smoke billowing from the haystack which Walt set on fire to protect the cattle from feeding on the splinters and nails that penetrated the hay. We realized the work that lay ahead of them--they'd have to start all over to make enough new hay for the livestock to survive through the long, cold winter.
On the way to Glen Ullin, we observed ruined buildings, a house whose upstairs was sheared away exposing beds and dressers; water tanks toppled over; hay that had been stacked was scattered for miles around; a Quonset hut was wrung out like a dishrag.
We've visited Walt and Ethel several times since that dark July 4th. They welcome us to their beautiful new home. The shelves are lined with family pictures, comfortable furniture graces the living room and bedrooms. One Christmas since then, we received a family picture from them. On the back Ethel had written, "God has been good to us."
(Written by Anne Pietz in 1996, submitted July 20, 2008. Sadly, Walt passed away on May 13, 2003. Ethel lives in Carson, ND)
(The title "It was a dark and stormy night" borrowed from the story first written by Edward Bulwer Lytton in 1830).
(Above Image Courtesy Duane Schatz)