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6 Left Dead as Twisters Level S.D. Hamlet

Storms: Town was hit without warning; governor asks for federal aid. Five others are killed and almost a million businesses and homes are dark in Midwest.

June 01, 1998|STEPHEN BRAUN and JOHN BECKHAM | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

When the sun emerged Sunday over the flatlands of eastern South Dakota, it exposed two dozen clapboard houses in an expanse of rubble that hours earlier had been the town of Spencer, a place blasted from Earth the night before by a lethal devil's fork of tornadoes.

A trio of rumbling black funnel clouds, one a quarter of a mile wide, converged in a fury of whirlwinds on Spencer at dusk Saturday, scattering nearly every vestige of civilization. The torrent of winds killed at least six residents and injured 150, many of them elderly men and women who had settled into a quiet life in the rural town of 300 after decades spent farming the fields nearby.

Powering across the level Dakota landscape at 30 mph, the tornadoes that erased much of Spencer were the most devastating pincers of a volatile storm front that unleashed gusts of hurricane-force winds in some Wisconsin and Michigan counties and peppered much of the upper eastern plains with hail and driving rain.

The boiling, dark walls of wind that struck at Spencer appeared to gather within moments, witnesses said, materializing with such speed and devastation that they knocked out the town's electricity and disabled its storm sirens before they could sound.

"There wasn't any warning, but it didn't matter," said Mary Haupt, 36, who ran screaming into a field south of Spencer to find her husband, Tim, 40, as the black horizon filled with debris. "The clouds came up too quick. We had just enough time to get into the house and down in the basement."

The Haupts cowered under a heap of blankets for three minutes as their farmhouse shook and the air thudded. When they emerged, the sun was still fading. Outside, around them was a tableau of rural devastation. Their barn was a shambles of splintered wood and equipment. Across the road, at a neighbor's farm, panicked cows lowed in fright near the carcasses of cattle that had been hurtled through the air.

About three miles to the north, the town of Spencer had been flattened into a bristly carpet of wood, concrete and metal. The clipped frame hulks of a few homes poked out of the piles. The town's 120-foot-high water tower lay toppled, snapped off its metal legs. A semi-rig truck was upended in a tree. The walls of one service station were shorn away, leaving a car sitting on a hoist, still waiting for a mechanic.

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Lyle Weber, 41, one of the first rescue workers to reach Spencer, was unnerved by the town's silence. The winds had died down as if they had never come. Stunned inhabitants stumbled through streets clogged by the remains of their homes. Few cried or spoke, Weber said, they "just kept walking around. A lot of them, we had to ask them questions to get anything out of them."

"As far as you could see there was debris," said Weber, who arrived with four fellow volunteer firefighters from the neighboring town of Alexandria. "Most of the houses were just sticks. You'd never know that a town full of people lived there."

Weber and his crew worked through the night as hundreds of police, rescue crews, a 100-man inmate crew and National Guard units arrived to restore order, search for the missing and bulldoze the debris off the streets. On Sunday morning, search dogs were brought in to find the missing--but by midday, all residents had been accounted for, authorities said.

At least 90% of the town was "plumb gone," Spencer Mayor Rocky Kirby said as he surveyed the wreckage where four churches, a bank and a post office stood. He admitted he is unsure if it is even worth rebuilding. One among scores of plains towns that have hemorrhaged population in recent decades, Spencer is a shrinking haven for farm retirees and workers who commuted to Sioux Falls, 45 miles to the east.

South Dakota Gov. William Janklow, who toured the site Sunday with Kirby, left shaken, comparing the town's ruins with "a combat zone, like Hiroshima, like Nagasaki." Janklow said he asked the Federal Emergency Management Agency for disaster aid. FEMA teams were dispatched.

Several of the dead were pulled from the debris of assisted-living apartments for the elderly on what had once been Main Street. Lyle Weber, whose crew helped retrieve the bodies, was too distraught to describe what had happened to the tornadoes' victims. What stayed in his mind were the vaporized apartments themselves, "a two-story duplex with the bottom half somewhat still there. The top half completely blowed off."

Despite the silence from the town's sirens, some residents in the area knew enough from television and radio weather updates that a major storm was gathering. Lawrence Roster, 65, a shorthorn cattle farmer who lives four miles west of Spencer, said TV programs were interrupted by tornado bulletins minutes before the winds raised up.

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