By LeAnn R. Ralph
COLFAX — At first it seemed like an ordinary thunderstorm coming through on Friday, June 27, at around 3 p.m.
The day had been oppressively sticky and humid, so it was not surprising that a thunderstorm would develop.
But then the sky grew darker and darker, almost as if nightfall were quickly approaching.
And then the wind came out of the east and a torrential downpour began.
Those of us at the Colfax Messenger office (me and a woman renewing her newspaper subscription) watched as the Colfax Messenger sign bent in the wind.
The sign looked as if it would go down, although it did not.
A little while later, the wind had passed, and even though it was still pouring down rain, the woman decided it was safe to leave.
Several times during the storm, the electricity flickered off at the Messenger office but then came back right away and never did go out completely.
A few minutes after that, Scott Kingzett, tour guide at the Colfax Railroad Museum, came hurrying through the heavy rain.
Kingzett said he had been over at the railroad museum and had watched a tornado go right over Cedar Country Cooperative.
The tornado had come from the south/southwest, Kingzett said.
“It was right above their roof. I could see debris — leaves and whatever else — swirling around in it,” Kingzett said.
Before coming over to the Messenger office, Kingzett said he had called 911 to report a possible tornado in the Colfax area.
Shortly after Kingzett left, a call came over the scanner from Dunn County dispatch for Colfax EMS. The dispatcher said the 911 Center had received multiple calls of a tornado in the Colfax area.
A little while later, Dunn County Dispatch called out the Colfax Fire Department, saying that dispatch had received calls of power lines down and that one power line was reportedly on fire.
The Messenger received several telephone calls saying that there were trees down in the streets and that the Cedar Country Cooperative roof had been damaged.
The roof, a wooden roof with shingles, lay right next to the gas pumps at Cedar Country. The roof really did not look like Cedar Country’s roof, and in fact, it was a section of roof from the house directly south of the railroad tracks, known as the old train depot, that is the private residence of Ed Eggen.
A large tree in the alley next to Cedar Country Cooperative also had gone down, causing some sections of town to be out of electricity.
Down the alley from the Messenger, a trampoline hung in a tree.
A trampoline also lay in the parking lot of the Colfax High School.
Most of the property damage was to Ed Eggen’s home and to the Colfax School District buildings, the softball, baseball and practice fields and two equipment sheds.
Small branches with leaves were piled up along the fences around the school parking lot and the football and baseball fields, like so much snow blown before the wind.
The tornado also touched down at Adam Bjork’s farm north of town on county Highway M and flipped over a trailer, took the top out of a silo, and damaged a grain bin.
The National Weather Service has confirmed that an EF1 tornado had touched down in Colfax that afternoon.
Brad and Melissa Larson were just pulling into Cedar Country Cooperative to get some gasoline with their five-year-old daughter, Janica, in the pickup truck with them.
Melissa Larson said it was storming, but then she noticed two-by-fours flying through the air. She thought they might have come from Woods Run.
“Our daughter is five, and I told my husband to get her out (of the vehicle) and that we should get inside,” Melissa Larson said.
Brad and Janica never made it inside.
They only got as far as the front of the pickup truck.
“When I had almost reached the building, all four doors flew open,” Melissa said.
In the meantime, Brad Larson was hunkered down, with one arm hooked around the bumper of the truck and his other arm holding on tightly to his daughter.
Melissa Larson said that in watching the security video from Cedar Country later on, she could see all the debris swirling around right in front of the building.
And then, as quickly as it had come, the tornado was gone and the wind died down. It was still raining quite hard, though, Melissa Larson said.
All three members of the Larson family got inside Cedar Country Cooperative as quickly as they could.
“My daughter said, ‘water was blowing straight up my nose,’” Melissa Larson said.
“We finally got a decent night’s sleep last night (Sunday),” she said during a telephone conversation with the Colfax Messenger Monday morning.
“It did not sink in right away, what had happened,” Melissa said.
“That section of roof landed right behind our truck. My husband thought he was being pelleted by hail, but it was probably debris from the tornado,” she said.
“It all felt so surreal that night and all the next day,” Melissa said.
“Wow that was really close … the angels had their wings wrapped around (Brad and Janica),” she said.
Afterwards, while telling others about the experience, people said, “’How could you not see a tornado coming?’ But it was raining so hard, we really couldn’t see anything,” Melissa said.
“When I saw the board flying through the air, that’s when I knew it was pretty bad,” she said.
On the Cenex security video, there is a section where the screen is white. Melissa wondered if that might be the tail of the tornado.
When the screen cleared again, a car sitting by the front doors, a convertible with the hood open, had been moved several feet to the west — and the hood had been slammed shut.
Across the street in Cedar Country Cooperative’s parking lot, there was a truck from Jerry’s Towing that was towing a van, Melissa Larson said.
The truck windows were broken out and so were the van’s windows, she said, noting that the driver was sitting in the tow truck when the tornado struck.
A representative who answered the telephone at Jerry’s Towing in Menomonie confirmed that one of the company’s trucks had been in Colfax.
“A 2×4 went through the back window. As soon as it happened, (the driver) called in and said, ‘I just got hit by a tornado.’ At first it didn’t hit me what he said. ‘Yeah, I just got hit by a tornado.’ He was very calm about it,” said the Jerry’s Towing dispatcher.
Since Brad and Melissa Larson did not know if there were any other storms or if storm warnings were issued, they decided to head home. They live north of Colfax on County Highway M.
“Our buildings were all there. And we could see the cows out in the pasture. But we were nervous about more storms. We don’t have a basement. So we went over to our neighbors’, Toby and Judy Horn,” Melissa said.
“This will be something for our daughter to remember, that she has been through a tornado,” Melissa said.
The EF1 tornado only lasted for about five minutes and had winds of up to 90 miles per hour, according to the National Weather Service.
The June 4, 1958, tornado that destroyed Colfax was believed to have been an EF5.
“I saw a bunch of wind and some rain. I didn’t think anything of it until I saw things flying through the air and then the building shifted. But then it was all over. It was over relatively quickly,” said Chuck Brown, Cedar Country Cooperative store manager.
“It was windy and it was raining. We had some people inside here. We wouldn’t let anyone leave. Then when the debris started flying and the building shifted, for ten or 15 seconds, I was quite concerned. But then it was done. And then it was everything left laying around out here. We were so fortunate. If (the roof from Ed Eggen’s house) had hit the diesel pumps, we could have had some major issues. If the tree in the alley had fallen to the south instead of the way it did … well, it could have been a lot worse. We were very lucky. No one got hurt. And we’re here to move on,” Brown said.
“It was chaotic there for a while. The town went from about a thousand people to ten thousand people,” he said.
By about 5 p.m. on Friday, there was about as much traffic through Colfax as anyone has ever seen driving through Colfax. Much of the traffic appeared to be sightseers, as they drove slowly through town, cell phones up to their ears, talking as they were driving.
“My mom and dad grew up here in Colfax. We’re here visiting from California,” said Dave Flesberg of Costa Mesa, California.
Leonard Flesberg, Sigurd Flesberg, and Lillian Flesberg were his relatives.
“They farmed by Big Elk Creek. We heard about the tornado (on Friday) so we wanted to come over here for a visit. I’m glad to see there isn’t any damage. All I remember hearing about was the 1958 Colfax tornado. We’re here touring around. … It’s nice to be here to visit. It’s the salt of the earth right here,” Flesberg said.
“It came out of nowhere. I’ve never been in a tornado. But no one got hurt,” Brown said.
Mr. Eggen’s niece called the Colfax Messenger Monday morning to see about putting a thank you in the newspaper because everyone at Cedar Country had been so nice to her uncle and had brought the Skid Steer over to help him clean up right away.
Ed Eggen is 92.
“He’s a good guy. He wants to fix his roof,” Brown said, brushing off any mention that Cedar Country Cooperative employees had done anything out of the ordinary in going over to help Mr. Eggen.
“It just came up so quickly, without any warning. Until the building began to move, I wasn’t concerned. But when it started to shift, I started to say (to the people inside the store), that we’d better get somewhere else. But then it was done and gone,” Brown said.
“It’s fortunate the school was pretty much empty and that none of the little kids were outside playing at that time. Can you imagine how bad that could have been?” he said.
The convertible out in the parking lot that can be seen in the security video belongs to Jeff Taylor.
“It moved that car, and if you pay close attention, it moved other cars out in the parking lot, too,” Brown said.
Rick Meskers works at Karl’s Chevrolet on Main Street in Colfax right across from Cedar Country Cooperative and was sitting in his office at around 3 p.m. Friday afternoon.
“Matt and Eugene were over there. And Karl just left. He was probably about a block away in his Tahoe. And I said, ‘Look at that wind.’ All of a sudden Matt says, ‘Look at that tornado.’ And you could see it dropping down. You could see it by the old depot building (Ed Eggen’s home). I thought it was coming right at us. When you see something — I thought it just seemed like it was coming right at me. It actually traveled more away from us. But we took off running. I ran to the bathroom. Those guys ran to the basement, which was the smarter place to run to. But it was so close, and where are you going to go? I didn’t have time to get to the basement. I’ve been teasing those guys. I don’t think they made it to the basement by the time it was gone. It happened really quick. And the amazing thing was, everything from the Buck Snort on down was fine. It picked back up right away,” Meskers said.
“When I came out of the bathroom, Eugene and Matt were just coming upstairs. ‘Rick, are you all right?’ they asked. It was the funniest thing out of all of it. Because no one was hurt. We never realized it came back down. We saw the funnel up in the clouds up in the sky, but we never knew it came back down. We watched it,” he said.
“When you think about it, the vortex had to be pretty darn small. It had to be very narrow. It had to have been about the width of the showroom,” Meskers said.
“I always thought it had to be 150 mile per hour winds. But the National Weather Service said 70 to 90. It just seemed so much more than that … the people in the Buck Snort didn’t know why the power went out. We had a customer over there. He said, ‘What happened? The power went out.’ We said, “A tornado went through.’ And he said, ‘No!’ But of course it had lifted by then. So how would they notice it if it had lifted by then?” he said.
“Everybody knows if you’ve got a tornado coming, you should go to the basement. But it happened to fast, I ran to the closest (shelter) and that was the bathroom. By the time I was in the hallway, it was probably gone. It was something to see — especially since no one got hurt and there were no animals lost or not a lot of building damage. You’d like to see one out in the field where it can’t hurt anything. It was quite the experience, over all,” Meskers said.
“The sirens go off every time there’s a thunderstorm, but this time, there was no thought of a thunderstorm,” he said.
In fact, the National Weather Service radar makes a sweep of any given area every five minutes, and then, to confirm that there is a tornado, the National Weather Service waits until it is on the radar in two sweeps before issuing a tornado warning.
In this case, in the first five minutes, there was no tornado. The second sweep there was a tornado over Colfax. And in the third sweep five minutes later, there was no tornado.
“All you have to do is watch that Cenex video. Someone only needed to be in the wrong spot, and there would have been serious injuries … I’m really glad no one got hurt,” Meskers said.
“The only thing I heard was the suction of the tornado. It sucked our door wide open. And the ceiling tiles fluttered. There was insulation all over the floor. But then every tile went back in its spot. We did not have to adjust one of them. But there was still a big mess on the floor. We’ve been cleaning up here for a couple of days. All of the stuff that blew out on the floor. That was kind of weird. All the tiles went back where they belonged, so you wondered, ‘where did that come from?’” he said.
Meskers also had seen the security video from Cedar Country Cooperative.
“That’s what really amazes me. Can a 90 mile per hour wind really move a car? I would have thought it would take a lot more than that to move a car,” he said.
“Since no one really got hurt, I’m glad to say that I was able to see it,” Meskers said.
The Cedar Country Cooperative canopy must be amazingly well built, he noted.
“We were standing by the front door when it started pounding against the big window,” said Eugene Woolever, also an employee at Karl’s Chevrolet.
“The front door went — wooommmfff — open, and me and Matt saw the tornado come down right by the old depot. We said, ‘Tornado!’ and took off right for the back. We came back up after about two minutes. Rick came out of the bathroom. We watched it go up (into the clouds). It was scary. That was my third one. This is the closest. The others have been a lot farther away,” Woolever said.
“There were no warnings. There was nothing on the weather. That’s what was weird about it. We went over to the Buck Snort. A guy came in, and he’d gone to the Buck Snort, and they didn’t even know it happened. They just knew their power went out. The tree went down in the back, and that’s how their power went out. I thought, ‘Holy cow. We’re getting a good rain. And then the door flew open and I watched the tiles go up. It was amazing that none of the cars on this side were damaged. It’s amazing no one was walking down the street,” he said.
Colfax school district
“The most important thing for the whole town is that no one got hurt,” said John Dachel, principal at Colfax High School.
“For us here, it was noise, and then one of our lights dropped (to the floor) in the cafeteria,” he said.
“We had some roof damage. A couple of the Univents got ripped off the roof, and when they did, they rolled and damaged a portion of the roof. We have the assessors here to assess the whole roof. We will continue to assess things and make sure that everything is safe for the students this fall. We have to get through summer school now,” Dachel said.
“Two equipment sheds were demolished. And the bleachers on the visitors’ side. The large shed way in the back got totally demolished. We’ve heard that some (of the items from the equipment shed) ended up out at Adam Bjork’s. Bob Higbie had a great video of it. That showed us what really did happen. Knock on wood, we were really fortunate. We had summer school until about 2:30, so realistically, it could have been so much worse. As it was, we only had about four or five people in the building. We heard the noise. I don’t know if it was the wind blowing or what, but it made a different kind of a noise. And then one of the lights dropped and shattered, and we came out running, because we knew then that something was going on. From there it was a matter of assessing the building to find out what was going on. We knew we had leaks because we had water coming in right away,” Dachel said.
“It was so fast. I don’t think it took more than 20 seconds before it was through and gone. We didn’t have time to do anything,” he said.
“Fortunately, the people who were here were in the interior portion of the building, which is the safest part of the building. Structurally, our building is sound. If it did go right over the top of us, and it didn’t do anymore damage than that, our building is sound. You can see how much damage it could do by the damage it did to the shed. We were very fortunate … now we’re going through the process of checking everything out to see what’s damaged and what is working. Mr. Yingst is working with the insurance company to get the assessment done. It will be a progression to find out what we need to fix. We’re going to shut the fields down for a while because there’s quite a bit of screws and there are some broken lights. We don’t want anyone to get hurt,” Dachel said.
“We don’t want anybody out there (at the ball fields) until we know that it’s all clear and everything has been cleaned up,” he said.
“The EMTs drove through a couple of times to make sure everyone was all right. We gave them the thumbs up, and they went on their way. People from the community stopped in to make sure everyone was all right, and we greatly appreciated that,” Dachel said.
“We didn’t realize the sheds had been taken until later. We were going through the building to see what was going on in here. For me, it was probably at least 15 minutes later before I realized the shed had been taken. I wasn’t worried about the shed. That can all be replaced. We wanted to make sure the building was safe inside … It took us all night to assess about 75 percent of it. Then Saturday we did another sweep. And on Sunday. And again today. We’re always finding a few more things we didn’t realize. A light pole here. A leak in the roof there. We’re going through that process now,” Dachel said.
“Our goal is to make sure everything is safe and sound for the kids when they come back this fall. What needs to be replaced will be replaced. Lives are the most important. And no one got hurt,” he said.
“I think our town was very fortunate. It’s just some cleanup now. I saw a lot of people out and about, checking on everybody. I think that’s what makes our community so great. It’s that community aspect. It’s what makes our town so special,” Dachel said.
“We are probably in the — unofficially — million dollar plus mark in damage,” said Bill Yingst, school district administrator.
“We’ve got pretty extensive roof damage on the north side of the building. The sheds are a total loss. Some water damage in the building. There are three classrooms that the carpet is a loss. We’re not sure about the electronics. We’ve got some issues with our intercom. We’re still finding things, and we’re still assessing dollar amounts. It was a small tornado, but it was still a tornado. Fortunately, there were no kids playing outside. It came up so quickly. The National Weather Service did not issue a warning. My best guess, is the funnel came down (near Cenex) went up and then came back down at the school. And then it went on through … I called the insurance company, and there was a crew here in about two hours,” Yingst said.
“We found some new damage this morning that wasn’t there Friday, wasn’t there Saturday, wasn’t there Sunday. But it’s there today. That water migrates through a facility, so you don’t know where it will come out and cause more damage,” he said.
At the time the tornado came through on Friday, June 27, Rich Jensen was just coming into town on county Highway N.
“I didn’t really see anything until I got up town. It rained hard, but that’s all I saw. By Anderson Bridges, their soffit pan got all sucked down and the insulation got sucked out of there. They have their privacy fence, and about four sections of that got torn off. Me and Jesse Coates have a trailer out there with loose tin, but it never touched that. Carey Davis drove by, he thought there’d be tin out there. Every time the wind blows, he’s picking up tin. It never touched the tin. Tornadoes are weird things,” Jensen said.
“A lady up by the school here was telling Annie (Schieber) she had a beach ball in her yard, and it never touched the beach ball, but the school and everything in back, that’s what got damaged,” he said.
“What I find amazing, is every time you get a breeze, or a maybe a thunderstorm, the siren goes off. But a tornado came and went, and the siren never went off,” Jensen said.
As for Schieber’s business, A Little Slice of Italy, “it’s the oldest building in town, and it wasn’t damaged at all. It stood through the 1958 tornado and now this one, and no damage,” he said.
“I was coming from Chippewa on N. It was just pouring. But when I got to Tom Larson’s place, it stopped. I was coming into town to go the restaurant to see Annie, and I got stopped. I thought, ‘what’s going on?’ And Annie came walking up and said, ‘We just got hit by a tornado,’” Jensen said.
Annie Schieber, owner of A Little Slice of Italy, said she was at work at her restaurant when the tornado came through.
“I saw the roof fly off (from Ed Eggen’s). I saw everything flying around Cenex. I saw the calf hutch. I was talking on the phone at the same time it was going on. It was way fast. It’s as close as I want to be. I saw everything turning. And then it was gone,” Schieber said.
Little Italy lost part of the awning on the side of the building, and the tables and chairs on the south side of the building were all pushed to the railing, but that was the extent of the damage.
Schieber said she was amazed that the Cedar Country Cooperative gates and other pieces of equipment stored outside across the street from her restaurant were not touched.
“I expected to walk out of the building and see all of that over here. But it wasn’t,” she said.
“We were thrilled when we drove up and there were people here to help (Ed Eggen). That’s a small town for you,” said Sandy Henke of Eau Claire who is Ed Eggen’s niece.
“He is my mother’s brother. There are two of them left,” she said.
Mr. Eggen lives in the house that was once a train depot and is directly south of the railroad tracks on Main Street.
Henke said she found out about the tornado in Colfax on the 5 p.m. news.
“I saw it on the news, and I saw Uncle Ed’s house. I said, ‘Oh my gosh.’ We made a couple of phone calls, and up we came,” Henke said.
Ed Eggen said he was home at the time the tornado came through.
“I was looking out the door. It didn’t last long. We were at the bank, and they said the wind started from the southeast and then it came from the west,” Mr. Eggen said.
Although it was a substantial portion of his roof that landed in the Cedar Country Cooperative parking lot, Mr. Eggen said he did not actually see the roof land because it was raining too hard. He also did not hear anything.
“Think about Nebraska. It’s miles and miles of flat. There was one girl on television who said, ‘All that’s left is me.’ It wasn’t that bad here,” Mr. Eggen said.
The house where Mr. Eggen lives was actually the second train depot in Colfax. At one time, it was located farther down the tracks toward where the existing depot is situated.
“I don’t know how they did it when they moved it,” Mr. Eggen said.
“There was a fellow who stopped in here Saturday who was raised here in the 1940s. That was before Ed, my uncle and my grandma moved in here,” Henke said.
Mr. Eggen does not remember the year when he moved into the house.
“I was born in 1953, and this is the only place I remember my grandma living. So it was at least since then,” Henke said.
Police Chief Anderson
Police Chief Bill Anderson has only been on the job as Colfax’s new police chief for not quite two months — and he’s already had to deal with a tornado through town.
“I was surprised that there was no warning (of a tornado) and that no one saw it coming,” Police Chief Anderson said.
“I called in Officer Madrid, Office Schroeder, and Officer Branshaw. Schroeder and Madrid came in, and I had Branshaw on stand-by. Paul Gunness (from the Dunn County Sheriff’s Department) came, and we went around and surveyed the damage. Thankfully, it wasn’t a lot,” he said.
“Jackie (Ponto, village administrator-clerk-treasurer) was out in her backyard at her house and said they only got a little bit of wind. She didn’t know it had happened. I talked to a couple of guys working on a roof maybe a quarter mile to the east, and they said they had no idea it went through. I’m glad it didn’t make a full touch-down,” Police Chief Anderson said.
“I had Chippewa County deputies who know me call and ask if a tornado had touched down. They were worried because of Country Fest going on. That could be a mess over there,” he said.
“We were lucky. No one was walking down the road. You watch that pickup truck pulling out (on the Cenex security video). They were lucky. They probably got pelted with debris. Then you go up to the school, and you see that bumper ripped off the back of that Chevy Malibu. A tornado does odd things. The National Weather Service said it was probably a hundred yards wide. If it had really touched down, it would have taken out a lot of things. I’m glad Dunn County responded the way they did. They were fast,” Police Chief Anderson said.
“I thought it was going to be a lot worse than it was. You can deal with trees down. You can deal with property damage. Everything is replaceable except people,” he said.
“Colfax Health and Rehabilitation Center. If it had been a real touch-down, it could have been really bad for them. There was no warning for anybody. Nothing you could do,” Police Chief Anderson said.
“We had different people calling Friday night offering help from out of the area. They said ‘We have chainsaws. We can help.’ So we took down names and numbers and passed the information along. It’s nice to see people volunteering like that,” he said.
As for the amount of traffic in Colfax, “Chief Deputy Gunness told me they had got a hold of the radio stations and told people to stay out of Colfax, but I think that raised a huge flag for people to come this way … there were a lot of vehicles in Colfax. Thankfully none of the traffic was blocked. They got the trees out of the way right away, and everybody could keep moving. If it had been worse with more stuff down, we would have shut down the road and not let anyone in or out,” Police Chief Anderson said.