In Wadena, teen's instincts saved children's lives

Mariah Wood
Mariah Wood, now 18, was one of four lifeguards on duty at the Wadena pool on June 17, 2010. She's shown here sitting at the edge of the pool, which is now closed. Wood remembers feeling unsafe in the building where she and a small group had taken refuge as a powerful storm approached. Her decision to relocate herself and others to the basement of her family's home across the street likely saved lives. "I didn't think it was a tornado," she said. "I thought the world was ending."
Photo by Ann Arbor Miller for MPR

In June 2010, a dangerous tornado swept through Wadena, Minn., and destroyed a large swath of the town. The Wadena County Historical Society later collected the stories of residents who lived through the storm. This essay was written by Mariah Wood, who was working as a lifeguard at the community pool on that day.

June 17, 2010. School had recently gotten out and I had already started my second year employed at the Wadena community pool. That day there was to be a parade and the registration for the Wadena All School Reunion had started.

I was scheduled to work that day and remember thinking as were taking the tarps out that morning for lap swim that we probably wouldn't be open for very long that day because of the weather. The morning was full of thunderstorms and swimming lessons were cancelled. We would just have to wait it out and decide for the afternoon. We opened.

It wasn't until the middle of the 2-5 p.m. swim that one of the guards in the office had talked to a mother who came to pick up her child. She told us that we were under a tornado watch.

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Knowing this, we blew our whistles and cleared the pool. With the weather conditions in mind, we had all the kids call their parents to come and get them instead of riding their bikes home. I remember noticing the weather increasingly worsen.

It wasn't too long after that that I had gotten a text message from another marching band member who said the parade was rescheduled for a different day due to the weather. By then, most of the kids had gotten a hold of their parents who came and got them. There were only two sisters left.

Assessing the damage
Family and friends assessed the damage of Cindy Wood's home Friday, June 18, 2010 after a tornado struck Wadena, Minn. Thursday, June 17, 2010.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

We decided to huddle into the office closet instead of going to the evacuation spot which was the all-brick, no-window maintenance building outside. As we listened to the radio, the lights in the office were flickering on and off and I was trying to stay in touch with my mom across the street but I was losing service in the little closet.

After discussing it with the other guards we decided to go across the street to my house where we would at least have a basement to be in just in case. After getting permission from the parents to take the girls someplace safer, we started to make our way to my house. I'll never forget the eerie green color of the sky as we ran over.

As soon as we got to the house we headed to the basement. We set up some chairs from the kitchen upstairs and talked among ourselves for a while. At 5:05 we hit the floor. I remember us all linking arms in a circle with our ears popping, confused at the sounds we were hearing outside.

It wasn't until it was all over that we really realized what had just happened. As we made our way up the basement stairs, the view was open sky as we realized there was no longer an attached garage, along with the side of the house.

One of the guard's dad knew where we were and as he got to our house he told us we had to get out of there as soon as possible because there was a gas leak. I was screaming for our two labs that were thrown out of their house from the backyard. Dazed and confused, we got the dogs and all crammed into the car.

As we drove away I remember immediately looking at the pool and realizing what had just happened. If we would have gone to the maintenance building for shelter, we wouldn't have made it out. The once standing brick building now looked like a crashed pile of Legos.