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Comfrey…20 years after the twister

After activating the civil defense siren after a tornado had been spotted heading toward Comfrey 20 years ago, Dave Schiller had few precious seconds to find safety.

“It was only about one minute after I blew the siren that the tornado hit town,” said Schiller, who lived less than 100 yards from the fire hall.

So Schiller sought refuge under a 3,500-gallon tanker truck, that the fire department still uses, and clung to the muffler.

“I could feel the truck moving,” he recalled. “I wasn’t sure if I was going to be blown away or not.”

A photo of the fire station roof collapsed on top of the fire trucks, one of which Dave Schiller had ducked under. Submitted photo

Soon, the roof collapsed on the fire hall on top of the four trucks and one rescue vehicle parked inside, including the tanker under which Schiller had ducked.

That tragedy occurred on March 29, 1998. An F4-rated tornado (210-261 mph on the former Fujita Scale) struck the small town situated in both Brown and Cottonwood counties that then had a population of 550. Nearly 75 percent of the southern Minnesota town’s structures were damaged or destroyed, including the K-12 school.

Earlier that day, a supercell developed in the Sioux Falls, S.D., area and methodically made its way into southwestern Minnesota that Sunday afternoon.

In all, there were 14 tornadoes spawned from that supercell, a state record for touch-downs in a single day in March that still stands today. Tornadoes that day also wreaked havoc in the towns of St. Peter, Nicollet and Le Center.

The devastation left behind from these 14 tornadoes included two deaths — a 6-year-old Mankato boy and an 85-year-old Hanska man — while damage was estimated at hundreds of millions of dollars.

Despite only a few precious seconds to seek shelter, there was one serious injury to a Comfrey man southwest of town, and a few minor injuries.

“We were lucky that no one was killed,” said Jean Schiller, Dave’s wife.

The tornado that struck Comfrey was over a mile wide and hugged the ground for an astonishing 67 miles, first touching down around 3:30 p.m. near Avoca in Murray County.

After destroying a home and a church 10 miles southwest of Comfrey, the tornado continued on and entered the Comfrey city limits.

Comfrey Fire Chief Mark Warner and several other firemen were trained to spot severe weather and were scattered about on the outskirts of Comfrey when the weather turned ugly that day. One of those spotters was Paul Schiller, Dave and Jean’s son, who turned 25 years old that day.

“A memorable birthday,” laughed Paul.

When Dave Schiller’s pager went off, he left his home and quickly went over to the fire station. Warner had spotted the tornado approaching town and informed Schiller to activate the siren to alert the townspeople.

Dave Schiller re-enacts where he crawled under the same tanker truck that was then parked inside the fire station. Photo by Scott Thoma

“After I punched in the codes to sound the alarm, there really wasn’t any time to run back home,” Schiller recalled. “And there wasn’t a basement in the fire hall, so I just ducked under one of the trucks by the passenger door and hung on.”

Meanwhile, Jean Schiller had been preparing for Paul’s birthday party earlier that day. Paul opened the birthday card given to him by his parents and stood it up on the breakfast nook.

“(Paul) wanted steaks for his birthday, so I had taken out a few steaks to thaw,” she explained. “I baked a cake and some other things, too.”

The Schiller’s older daughter, Jennifer, and her husband, Mike, were out of town that day and left their 2-year-old son, Mitchell, with his grandparents. The Schillers younger daughter, Emie, was with them at home.

The family went to church that morning and then later heard that Comfrey was included in a severe weather watch.

“I remember thinking it was March, so how severe could the weather be?” said Jean.

Upon hearing the tornado siren, Jean grabbed Mitchell and headed for the basement with Emie and the family dog, Buddy.

Dave Schiller re-enacts how he activated the civil defense siren in the fire station 20 years ago. Photo by Scott Thoma

“I remember hearing the wind and glass breaking,” she said. “And my ears popped. Then I could hear the rain and hail.”

In the basement, Emie was praying for her father’s and brother’s safety.

Once the tornado passed through town, Dave Schiller raced back home to check on his family and was relieved that everyone was unhurt.

The Schiller home suffered extensive roof and structural damage and had to be torn down and rebuilt. Paul’s home was also damaged and had to be rebuilt.

“The steaks and cake were scatted around on the floor,” Jean said, now able to laugh about it. “The birthday card Paul set up on the counter was still standing in the same spot, but a picture and bulletin board on the wall behind it were gone.”

The Schillers still have the kitchen clock that fell off the wall when the tornado hit their house and knocked the power out at 4:24 p.m.

“It was so hard to watch them tear down our house, Paul’s house, and so many other people’s houses in town,” Jean said. “They couldn’t be saved. All our memories of living there were gone in just a few minutes.”

Jean and Dave Schiller reminisce about the tornado over a cup of coffee, with the kitchen clock that stopped at 4:24 p.m. when the tornado knocked the power out 20 years ago. Photo by Scott Thoma

The Schillers and others have since rebuilt their homes and are now building new memories.

When the Schillers and other citizens looked over the destruction left behind by the twister, the school, most of the businesses and three of the town’s churches were destroyed.

Today, Comfrey’s population is around 400 but has the appearance of a much larger community, with many modern homes and businesses, including an impressive new town hall/community center/fire station that features two large framed aerial photos in a connecting hallway of the town before and after the tornado.

When deciding whether or not to rebuild the school, town officials called for a community town hall meeting to first determine how many residents and business owners would rebuild and remain in town. Since the actual town hall was destroyed, the only undamaged structure large enough to hold a town meeting was St. Paul’s Catholic Church.

Comfrey is one of the few towns in Minnesota this size in which its school district is not paired or consolidated with another nearby school district. With less than a 200-student enrollment in grades K-12, there was pressure to relocate the students to neighboring school districts.

But the situation became a double-edged sword. Several business owners naturally did not want to rebuild unless they were assured the school and most residents’ homes would be rebuilt. And officials couldn’t build a school if many of the residents and business owners weren’t going to stay.

Fortunately, the majority of the residents chose to rebuild their homes, so the plans for the new school moved forward. Upon hearing that, many businesses owners rebuilt, too. Comfrey opened its new school in October 1999.

A memorial monument was put up outside the new fire station/town hall/community center. Photo by Scott Thoma

“We basically have a new town now,” said Dave Schiller. “It’s nice to see all new buildings, but it’s a terrible way to get them.”

One of the three destroyed churches was rebuilt, so the town currently has two places of worship. Besides the school, the community center/town hall/fire station and many homes, Comfrey also boasts new streets, a library, restaurant, hardware store, drug store, grocery store, newspaper office, and apartment buildings.

The water tower was not taken down by the tornado.

Gary Richter, the former publisher of the newspaper in town, who is the current mayor, said that while the tornado gave the town a modern facelift, he still has mixed feelings. “It’s not the same town I grew up in,” he said. “It’s like a whole different town now. The houses and businesses I remember are no longer around. It was a tough time financially and emotionally for everyone in town. Despite all these nice new buildings and homes, I definitely would choose no tornado over having a tornado hit our town.”

Today, it’s difficult to tell that a tornado once ravaged Comfrey two decades ago. The town has a completely different look to it than it had before the tornado came through. One thing remains the same, though … the town’s spirit is as strong as ever.

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