30 Years Later: Chandler-Lake Wilson Tornado
CHANDLER, Minn. (KEYC) — The last time there was an EF-5 tornado in Minnesota was 30 years ago today in Chandler, a small town in Murray County.
The Chandler-Lake Wilson Tornado was the only EF-5 tornado in the entire country that year.
Over 40 people were injured and one woman, Bertha Youngsma, was killed, and while that is tragic when you consider the magnitude of this monster, the death toll could have been much, much worse. That’s why, to this day, the Chandler-Lake Wilson Tornado of 1992 still serves as a shining example of why local firefighters and first responders are so important and how being prepared can save your life.
On June 16, 1992, an EF-5 tornado churned across southwestern Minnesota, creating a 30-mile path of destruction.
Al Vis is the former Chandler city clerk. He was also a storm spotter and first responder that day.
“I said, ‘There it is.’ It was just one massive black cloud, probably a half-mile wide, maybe more,” Vis recalled.
Vis and his crew knew that they barely had a few minutes to let the entire town know that this monster was on the way.
“We went down Main Street,” Vis said. “I’m driving, and Lonnie Clark has the mic in his hand and I said to Lonnie, “Holler as loud as you can, I have the external speaker on. Tell people to get into the basement, the tornado is coming over the hill.”
“It didn’t look like a typical tornado to me because it was so wide. It was this, you know, churning mass,” recalled Betty Van Puersem, a Chandler first responder who was also in the truck with Vis that day.
“On the radio, they said, ‘Sound the sirens, sound the sirens, it’s coming!’ And it came through town,” Van Puersem continued. I live on the west edge of town and I told them, ‘Drop me off, I’ll run to the house. My two kids are at home.’ And they were like, ‘there’s no time. You can’t, you can’t Betty.’”
“And all of a sudden we saw the thing coming into the bottom, and we had no place to go. We were going to be right in the eye of that tornado,” Vis said. “So I put it to the metal, and we got to about 60 mph on the west end of town and the outer circulation of that tornado got a hold of our vehicle, and it just bounced us from one side of the road to the other side.”
“We knew it was bad. We were just going to sit and wait it out and then get into town as fast as we could,” Van Puersem said. “We get back to town and I said, ‘drop me off at my house. I have to check my kids.’ Well, they let me out of the doors, and I was like, ‘no, guys, I have to go to my house. I have to check on my kids.’ And somebody turned my shoulders and said ‘there it is. That’s your house.’ And it was totally gone.”
Van Puersem’s kids were okay, but more than half of her community was completely destroyed.
“So, we went and got Sarah and a bunch of neighbors that I could list off. We went down the road and helped pick people out of their basements. The houses were totally destroyed, so it’s not like you could walk downstairs into a basement,” Van Puersem. “You had to climb down and help hoist them up. We did house-to-house searches for checks.”
For a tornado like that to wipe out an entire town and for there only to be one fatality, you obviously did something right.
“You know Sean, that does come to mind, but it’s, at the moment, you can reconsider and talk about it with people, but at the moment, you have to do what’s right for that particular time,” Vis said. “You just do it.”
“You see pictures how of tornadoes in little communities all over every year, and it’s almost the same scene of that war zone look. How can so much power be unleashed on a community? It’s just amazing,” Van Puersem said.
It’s hard to help lift the hopes of others after something like that, Van Puersem said that after all the devastation, she knew it would get better.
“That it gets better. I didn’t lose, I lost things, but now I have a lot of things. My neighbor was Pete and he lost Bertha. That’s way different: when you lose people than when you lose your things. I’m not saying it’s not hard to start over and start from scratch, but it all comes back, you know. You can live a good, long life after that, so losing things is different than losing people, in my opinion.”
Over two dozen tornadoes were reported across eastern South Dakota and Minnesota that day. The Chandler-Lake Wilson Tornado was the most destructive, with estimated wind gusts of over 260 mph.
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