A young reporter’s view of the Elgin tornado aftermath
Patrick C. Miller
Grand Forks, N.D.
In July 1978, I was 22 and beginning my second year as a reporter-photographer with the Bismarck Tribune. On the Fourth of July that year, as I returned from a visit to my hometown of Pierre, S.D., a huge super cell blotted out the evening sun to the west. Traveling north on Highway 83, I turned on KFYR radio to learn whether the storm was headed for Bismarck. If so, I wanted to get there before it did. Suddenly, a DJ with panic in his voice announced that Elgin had taken a direct hit from powerful tornado. Initial reports told of severe damage, many injuries and some fatalities.
This was before the age of 24-hour live news coverage, the Internet, widespread satellite communications, digital photography and cell phones. Knowing the disaster would be a major story for the Tribune, I reported for work early the next day. My editor told me to that the Tribune had rented an airplane. My assignment was to fly over Elgin, take photos and get back to the newsroom as quickly as possible. I would then process the film and print the photos for the noon edition of the paper.
The pilot flew south from Bismarck and then west to follow the tornado’s path into Elgin along Highway 21. The first sign of the tornado was several demolished farmsteads on the north side of the highway. With uncanny accuracy, the twister paralleled the road and took out one farm after another. I noticed something strange where the path went through shelterbelts: some of the trees were completely upside down, their roots up in the air where their branches and leaves should have been. I’d seen storm-damaged trees before, but I’d never seen anything like that.
As the airplane approached Elgin from the east, the path of debris became heavier. Viewing the town from the air, it appeared as if a giant lawnmower had been driven through the north side. Although the tornado itself hadn’t been much more than a block wide and most of Elgin escaped severe damage, it was obvious that absolutely everything in the funnel’s path had been obliterated. From the air, it was possible to see how small Elgin was and to comprehend how unfortunate the town had been to lie in the path of such a relatively tiny but extremely violent force of nature.
Although barely 12 hours had passed since the twister struck, the town was abuzz with activity. The effort to salvage, repair and recover was well under way. People were in the streets and carefully picking their way through the rubble. All manner of cars, pickups, trucks and trailers were there to reclaim what could be saved and begin hauling away what couldn’t.
When I look at the photos I took that morning over Elgin, I am still in awe. The intense, focused nature of the destruction is extraordinary. Seeing the aqua-blue water tower knocked over and split open like a melon is still jarring. When I put on a telephoto lens to zoom in on individual scenes on the ground, the full impact of the carnage became clear. There was sometimes nothing in a pile of scattered debris to identify it as someone’s home. Vehicles and parts of buildings were everywhere they weren’t supposed to be. It was amazing that anyone in the tornado’s path survived and easy to see why some didn’t.
I made it back to Bismarck in time to get a photo on the Tribune’s front page. Two days later, I drove to Elgin with a student intern to shoot more photos and report on the clean-up and recovery effort.
Heading toward Elgin from the east on Highway 21, I saw an RV out in a field that had been crushed like an egg. Later, I was told one of the people killed had been driving that vehicle. On the east side of town, someone pointed out the twisted frame of a pickup near the road. That was part of a pickup in which two other fatalities occurred.
As we walked the streets along the tornado’s path, it was difficult to imagine what people experienced as the twister churned its way through their neighborhoods like a demonic buzz saw. Making our way through one of the mostly heavily damaged areas, a worker spotted my camera and called out to me. There was something he wanted me to photograph. He led us to a telephone pole standing amid the destruction and pointed out a piece of paper stuck to the pole. It was a paper bank check so deeply embedded in the wood that it couldn’t be pulled out.
I instructed the intern to hold the check open while I snapped photos from different angles. The Associated Press later distributed one of my check photos nationwide and I was told that it was published in newspapers around the country, although I had no way to confirm it.
While searching the Web for more information on the Elgin tornado, I discovered that my aerial photo of the collapsed water tower made the front page of the Post-Standard in Syracuse, N.Y. I have no idea how many other newspapers might have used my photos.
That the negatives of my 1978 photos from Elgin are still around is something of a story in itself. Former Bismarck Tribune photographer Doug Van Tassel rescued them from the trash more than a dozen years ago and returned them to me. Unfortunately, during the April 1997 flood in Grand Forks, they spent more a week submerged in floodwater in our basement. My wife Joan made it her mission to rescue the negatives, cleaning and drying them. Thanks to them, this bit of history survived.