Personal Accounts and Reflections of the Independence Day 1978 Tornado

"I lived in an apartment on a farm about 3/4 mile south of Elgin. I remember hearing the sirens and coming out of my apartment and seeing the tornado on the ground moving directly towards Elgin. It was an image I will remember forever. I remember seeing vehicles speeding south of Elgin on the county road that went past the farm trying to get out of the path of the tornado. I know that what I saw was very frightening but I can only imagine what the people who were in the path of the tornado must have felt as their homes were ripped apart." -- Julie Wolff

"I was 21 and employed by Elgin Hospital the summer between my junior and senior years of college at Minot State, where I was majoring in nursing.  The storm had passed through Mott and I had helped my father batten down the farm for the storm when I heard that a tornado had hit the hospital.  I sat in my bedroom for a moment and quickly skimmed my employee manual, which instructed all employees to report to work in case of disaster.  My father agreed to drive me the 20 miles to the hospital.  

The approach to the hospital was complicated by power outages, downed electrical lines, glass and other debris.  The north end of the hospital, I heard, had taken a direct hit.  Luckily, it was at a stairwell where there were no patients.

As the local ambulance crews delivered victims and lined them up on mats along floor of the ER wall for triage and pickup by ambulances which were coming from Bismarck, I quickly realized that my best friend from high school and her family were among the injured.  She and her husband, USAF, were home on leave for the 4th and the family-filled camper had been caught up in the tornado while they attempted to get home from a nearby rodeo.  Her grandfather was one of the casualties.  It was a shocking prelude to my life as a nurse.  No event in my 30 year career has ever been more terrible or more personal  than that moment." -- Rita K. Blickensderfer Vaughn

"What had started out as a fun time with family at the rodeo in Raleigh turned into a day that is forever burned into my memory. I was 22  years old, a sergeant in the Air Force, a young wife of 2 years  (having just celebrated our anniversary 2 days before). My husband  Larry and I were on leave visiting my family in Mott. My parents, Bruce & Elsie Parsons, decided we'd take a trip in their RV over to Raleigh to watch the 4th of July rodeo. Going along with my parents were me and my husband, my maternal grandfather Henry Neher, and my  youngest sister and brother, Stacy and Shane. It was a very hot day. I remember wearing a new yellow and white tank  top, my favorite jeans, and a hair scarf to hold back my waist-length hair. The rodeo was uneventful - just a rodeo. So we started back, probably after supper time. My dad was driving. Grandpa was in the front passenger seat. Larry and my mom were in the middle section where the kitchen area was. Stacy, Shane and I sat on the seat way in the back. I don't remember what we talked about or how long it took to get to the spot where I remember my dad saying someone on the CB radio said there was some bad weather up ahead. We drove further. Then my dad pulled the motor home to the right onto an approach off of Highway 21. I figured we would just be waiting out the storm. Shane and I were looking out the back right window (toward the east). I remember seeing  the ditch and the blowing field grass. All of a sudden I could feel  the motor home moving. I thought we were tipping over. But it didn't stop there. Things were moving around me in a brownish-gray haze. My glasses got knocked off right away so things were not clear. I remember feeling like I was sitting upright and everything moving  around me. Something knocked me in the shoulder. It seemed like forever. I prayed that it would just stop. Then it did.

I was still sitting in the far back of the motor home, with Stacy and  Shane, but there was no longer a seat under us. Just the floor. Stacy was to my left and Shane was lying across my lap. I don't know if  Shane was unconscious
, but I thought he was, or worse (he was okay).  The back and left wall were still there, but the right wall and the  roof were gone. The rain was hitting us but it was hard to pay  attention to it with what I could see in front of my eyes. The memory is fuzzy as to how we got out of the RV. We stood behind it trying to  shield ourselves from the elements. I remember my dad shouting for us  to get away from the motor home, saying something like, "it's gonna  blow!" All I could think was that it was going to blow away again. (I  found out later it was because of the possibility of either the gas  tank or portable fuel tank being ruptured and exploding.) So we moved away. I was trying to get my bearings as to my location. The RV was out in the field, not close to the road where we parked. I didn't know how that happened, but I sure wasn't thinking about a tornado. That  never entered my mind.

Things are happening around me. I know I saw Larry, who was bleeding from under his arm somewhere. I don't remember how I got to the hospital in Elgin, either a passing car or an ambulance. I remember seeing my cousin Marlin Schneider in an ambulance. He was working. I don't know how long I was in the Elgin hospital, but eventually I was put in an ambulance to be taken to St. Alexius in Bismarck. I remember my grandfather was in there too, talking. I think I had a neck brace on. And then the cold came. I was shaking so bad. Warm blankets were put on me. Shock was setting in.

Once I was at the hospital I told the staff where I was hurting. I needed to be x-rayed. My favorite jeans, new tank top - everything was cut off. I had a full x-ray (which worried me later because I found out after a few weeks that I was pregnant with my first child). I seemed to be fine (although I found out the next week my collar bone was broken). The neck brace was still on me. Eventually I was taken to a room. I was so dirty from the storm and debris flying around me. My long hair was a tangled filthy mess. I was surprised to see a good  friend, Marilee Carlson, was a nurse there. That was very comforting. I know my husband, mom, grandfather, and I think my sister were there at St. Alexius (my dad and Shane had stayed at the Elgin hospital). We found out Larry had a broken jaw and needed to have surgery for that.  My mom was banged up pretty bad. I still remember seeing a horrible bruise on her leg. I can't remember the extent of Stacy's injuries. Grandpa, however, was the worst. It seemed for every injury we didn't  get, he got them. I remember hearing reports of how he was getting worse. Organs shutting down. It was just too much for him (he was 77 years old). I can see my mom being pushed into my room in a wheelchair the next day and telling me that Grandpa had died. It was just so hard to believe. What a nightmare it was. It wasn't just happening to me - it was happening to my whole family.

This experience has had a lasting effect on me. I enjoyed watching storms when I was a kid, even up to the time before the tornado. Not any more. I'm very apprehensive when I know bad weather is in the area. I can't sleep in a moving car (except, of course, when I'm driving!) because the sudden, uncontrollable movements bring back that feeling. People that make light of tornadoes have no idea what they can do. I thank God I survived one."           -- Sheila (Parsons) Jones

"July 4th, 1978 was 2 days before my 14th birthday, and even though it has now been 30 years, I still remember that day as if it was yesterday.  This year on the 4th, I reflected back on that day that started out as fun, but turned very tragic.  My family and I had gone to Raleigh for the rodeo.  We had ridden in my parents RV from Mott, ND.  My parents, Bruce and Elsie Parsons, my grandfather, Henry Neher,  my sister, Sheila, and her husband, Larry, my younger brother, Shane, and myself had all been together for the day. The day had been very hot.  I had a portable radio with me and had been listening to it throughout the day.  I remember hearing weather alerts on the radio, but the bad weather had been by Dickinson, ND, which was a considerable distance away, or so I thought, as a 13 year old would.  We left Raleigh around 8 pm.  We were traveling on Highway 21 when Dad had gotten a message on the CB saying that the wind was very strong up ahead.  I remember the sky was black and it looked scary.  Dad had decided to pull over onto an approach on the North side of the road.  My dad was in the drivers seat and Grandpa was in the passenger seat.  Mom and Larry were sitting at the kitchen table, and Sheila, Shane and I were sitting on the couch in the back.  The RV was rocking back and forth considerably from the wind.  Shane had made the comment "We're gonna tip over!"  I had said,"No, we're not.", and the next thing I knew we were tipping over.  I remember screaming, falling and hitting my shoulder, and hearing breaking glass.  The next thing I know, we were sitting in the back of the RV without the couch under us, me in the corner, Sheila beside me, and Shane laying on Sheila's lap.  Dad had appeared by the now missing wall and said we had been hit by a tornado and to get out because it's gonna blow.  In my mind, I thought that he had meant that the tornado was going to come back.  We stood behind the RV to shelter us from the horrible wind and rain.  In reality, the RV could have blown up due to the leaking fuel.  Shane, Sheila, and I had ridden the whole tornado out in the RV.  Mom, Dad, Grandpa, and Larry had all been thrown from the RV into the field by which we were parked.  We had managed to flag a car down, so Sheila, Larry and I had ridden into Carson to my great aunts house and called an ambulance.   The ambulance then took us back to the scene of the accident and took us all to Elgin.  Most of us were then transported to Bismarck.  We were all injured in some way, but my grandpa was the one that had gotten hurt the worst.  He passed away the next day.  Sheila ended up with a broken collar bone.  Larry had a broken jaw.  Mom and Dad ended up with severe bruising, but thank goodness, no broken bones. Shane was thought to have maybe ended up blind with all the dirt in his eyes, but he was fine, and still wears no glasses to this day!  I had hit my head, so I was monitored for a head injury.  As horrible and terrifying as that day was, we were very blessed that all of us were not killed.  To look at pictures of our RV, I still wonder how any of us survived.  It has now been 30 years, and it wasn't until recently that I have been able to sleep through a storm at night.  They still make me somewhat nervous, and I certainly respect the weather now." -- Stacy (Parsons) Wintjen

"I had just turned 11 years old 9 days earlier. My parents, brothers, & sisters were up at the Heart Butte Dam for the 4th picnicking. My oldest brother, Doug, had bought the family farm a few years earlier and had to get home so he and his wife, Karen, could milk the cows. I rode along with them. My oldest sister, Patty, and her husband, Wes, had to do the same. Mom and Dad stayed behind to pack up the camper and clean up the picnic area. A few hours later my brother, his brother-in-law Jeff, and I were up in the field where they were working on his swather. Just then Jeff stood up and was just looking around. He said to Doug that off in the distance it looked like a tornado. Although we were nearly 14 miles from Elgin and 7 from Highway 21 the sheer size of it was very visible. We quickly jumped in the pickup and headed for the yard. When we got there, Karen and her sister Joyce, Jeff's wife, told us that a tornado was spotted west of Elgin. Moments later they announced Elgin had been hit. First thing Doug thought of was Mom and Dad as they would be traveling down Highway 49 about that time. After the radio announced that the storm had passed Carson Doug immediately checked on my other brother and sister Randy and Vickay to make sure they were okay at our home in Carson. He then put me and his family in the car and headed for Elgin to see if we could find Mom and Dad. When we got there we were awe struck at the devastation. We had a hard time getting around do to the downed power lines, snapped trees, and debris from the homes destroyed. After checking around a gentleman on the Elgin Fire Dept. my brother knew said he saw our Mom and Dad. I was young and the details are sketchy, but I remember Mom helping to calm friends and Dad was with others searching for the Nicklaus's. Unfortunately, my Dad was one of the people who found some of their remains. I remember Dad telling us the story that they were heading to town when they were passed by Nicklaus's. They followed them until it started to rain and hail. The wind got so strong that Dad could hardly keep the camper on the road so he pulled over. I thank God for this everyday because had they not stopped they would have more than likely been caught by the tornado. Dad remembers that he had to bring the camper to an abrupt halt on the highway because the motor for Nicklaus's pickup was setting in the middle of Highway 49. I remember my brother-in-law Wes being worried as the tornado dumped a tree on his mother's house. She was only a few blocks from where the water tower fell. Only a few miles west of Carson the Kenny Shriock farm was hit and the house and many outbuildings were lost. They weren't home, but their daughter and three younger sons were at home. Their daughter, a teenager had the presence of mind to get her brothers and herself in the basement. My sister kept her horse there. My sister's horse was lucky and spared, but a couple other horses weren't so lucky. After the storm our summer youth program leader thought it would be a good project to help out with the clean up. We went out to the Walt Huber farm where we helped clean up the debris. I remember seeing the chickens that another story told about. I was young, but it left an everlasting memory in my mind. Many of the people we knew were in some way affected by this storm."     -- David W. Sokolofsky

 Do you have a story, reflection, or experience with the tornado that you would like to share with everyone? If so, please email us at chauncy.schultz@noaa.gov or write to the National Weather Service at 2301 University Drive, Building 27, Bismarck, ND 58504.

Return to the Elgin, ND July 4th, 1978 Tornado Page


USA.gov is the U.S. government's official web portal to all federal, state and local government web resources and services.