Outside Looking In
One of the things I have done every year since the 50th anniversary of the Tracy tornado is to release nine black balloons (biodegradable) on June 13 at the memorial site along Highway 14 in memory of the nine people who lost their lives that day in 1968.
The first year in 2018, former Tracy High School band director Clint Peterson rang the church bell prior to me releasing of each helium-filled balloon. The balloons were released about 15 seconds apart and as they all drifted high into the distance, many people, including me, got misty-eyed.
The next year I invited some of the victim's family members to help release the balloons, including a six-year-old girl who was named after her great grandmother, Ella Haney, who was killed in the tornado. A Marshall woman who was born on the day of the tornado also released one of the balloons.
I also made nine white crosses that I insert into the ground at the memorial site (you can see the crosses and the balloons on my Facebook page) with hooks on the top to hold the balloons until they are released.
The nine people who were taken from us that day were Ella Haney, 84; Mildred Harnden, 75; Barbra Holbrook, 50; Ellen Morgan, 75; Fred Pilatus, 71; Paul Swanson, 60; Walter Swanson, 47; Nancy Vlahos, 2; and Otelia Werner, 75.
All nine of those killed were not in a basement or place of safety when the tornado hit.
There were also around 150 people injured in the tornado and rescue workers had to bring many of them to the overcrowded hospital on makeshift stretchers, using things like doors that they found at damaged homes.
I knew two of the victims well as they lived a block away from me on the same block as my best friend, John Lindstrom, whose family also lost their home.
I watched as my father was among those helping to locate and remove these two from the rubble. I also got to know some of the families of the victims as I was gathering information for the book I wrote about the tornado called "Out of the Blue".
The two-year-girl killed, Nancy Vlahos, was ripped from her soon-to-be adopted mother's arms as they were blown around in the front yard of their home by the force of the 300-mph force.
I have visited all nine of the victim's gravesites more than once. Two of them are buried in cemeteries in Worthington, including the two-year-old girl.
After I wrote the book, I pledged to myself to release balloons in their memory each year that I am able to.
The Tracy tornado was the first-ever "recorded" F5 tornado in state history that was fully contained within the state. There was a recorded F5 tornado that began in Fargo, ND on June 20, 1957 that eventually dissipated in Moorhead, MN. The other recorded F5 tornado in our state was in Chandler-Lake Wilson on June 16, 1992. One person was killed in that tornado.
One amazing thing that happened during the Tracy tornado was that a 25-ton railroad boxcar was thrown two blocks in the air and came to rest on the intersection of Fifth and Morgan Streets. If you are ever in Tracy, I urge you to drive to that intersection and then look south and you will see the railroad tracks and can visualize the strength of the tornado that could blow a boxcar that far.
The F-rating (Fujita) scale came out in 1971 and was changed to the current EF-rating (Enhanced Fujita) scale in 2007. It certainly is likely that there were other F5 tornadoes in Minnesota in the past, but that was before the wind speeds were recorded.
Weather experts determined the Tracy tornado was over 300 miles per hour based on how much wind it takes to blow certain objects a certain distance. They determined that it would take wind speeds of around 300 miles per hour to blow a train boxcar weighing 25 tons that distance.
The top story of the three-story elementary school was also sheared off and the building destroyed. A large tree on the southwest corner of the school that was busted apart but refused to be uprooted was removed and place in the memorial site and known as the "Tornado Tree". The tree eventually succumbed to the elements and was replaced by a metal-sculpted replica.
I will again be releasing the balloons around 7:05 p.m. (the approximate time the tornado hit the heart of town) on Tuesday, June 13, the 54th anniversary of this tragic day.