Although he was only 9 years old at the time, Scott Thoma’s recollection of June 13, 1968 is as if it were yesterday. That was the day that the first-recorded F5 tornado struck his hometown of Tracy, killing nine people and injuring 125 others.
Nearly 45 years later, Thoma’s book Out of the Blue recalls that fateful day when homes were leveled as though they were made out of balsa wood.
“A 25-ton boxcar was blown three blocks in the air and rested in an intersection of a residential area,” said Thoma. “The three-story elementary school that had housed students since the late 1800s was pounded and left defenseless against this beast of nature that generated wind speeds over 300 miles per hour.”
The Tracy tornado damaged one-quarter of the town’s homes, as well as several businesses, farms and vehicles.
“The day was unbearably hot and humid,” he said. “Townspeople were listless and trying to find ways to cool off instead of the usual activities like mowing lawn, trimming hedges, playing ball or even going for a walk. While muggy conditions tend to precede a storm, this day was no exception.”
A giant super cell that eventually spawned 37 funnels and/or tornadoes throughout Minnesota, the Dakotas and Iowa, decided to wreak the most havoc on the southwestern Minnesota city of Tracy and its 2,500 residents.
The tornado was spotted southwest of town by a farm family, who quickly notified the dispatcher in Tracy. The siren was sounded, giving those in town between eight and 10 minutes warning to seek shelter.
“Soon after the roaring subsided, with the tornado sauntering out of town, the sound was replaced by screams for help, sobbing and moaning from men and women who had lost their homes and all their possessions, dogs incessantly barking and emergency sirens,” said Thoma. “It was the first time I witnessed death as my father helped pull two of our deceased neighbors from the rubble. It was also the first and only time I ever saw my father cry, further magnifying the impact of that night.
For several days, the town was without power or water. Emergency, utility, medical and construction vehicles from numerous nearby towns volunteering their services lined the streets.
“Of the numerous stories that were told about that night, the one that intrigued me the most was about two sisters blown out the back door of their house and survived. Linda Vaske (now Tordsen) was 20 years old, and her sister, Pam Haugen, was only 8,” said Thoma. “Linda and her first husband, Clifford, were in the process of adopting a 2-year-old girl named Nancy Vlahos when Clifford was drafted into the Vietnam War. The Vaskes rented a home on the southern edge of Tracy, and Linda and Nancy were living there while Clifford was serving his military duty. Pam often stayed overnight with Linda and was there the night the tornado struck.”
What happened after that was a story of survival and heartbreak and is documented in the book.
The Tracy tornado is one of only two on the F5 or EF5 scales ever recorded in Minnesota history and one of only 56 ever recorded in U.S. history.
Out of the Blue takes the reader along the tornado’s 13.5-mile path that night and what the sisters were doing each step of the way. There is also a chapter dedicated to the nine people that lost their lives in this tragic event and explains how each of them was killed. There is also a chapter on some of the myths and misconceptions of tornadoes.
Linda Tordsen now lives with her husband, Gene, in Sauk Centre. Pam Haugen resides in Currie.
Scott Thoma has lived in Willmar for the past 35 years. He was an award-winning newspaper reporter and editor for 29 years before becoming an author. He travels throughout the state presenting his book to libraries, high schools, colleges, museums and clubs. He also has done numerous book signings. This is his first book, and he is currently working on a second.
Out of the Blue is available by visiting www.thomabooks.com and is also available in several bookstores, gift shops and museums in Minnesota. If you are interested in having Thoma present his book or for a book signing, he can be contacted at email@example.com or by calling him at 320-894-6007.