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Fifty-year-old memories haunt Tracy tornado survivors

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Eric Lantz took photos of the twister after it moved out of Tracy
On June 13, 1968, a tornado hit Tracy in southwest Minnesota. Then 16-year-old Eric Lantz took photos of the twister after it moved out of Tracy, and he won numerous photo awards for it that year.
Courtesy of Eric Lantz

Fifty years ago, on June 13, 1968, Minnesota's first recorded F5 tornado caused massive damage in the community of Tracy in the southwest part of the state. The storm's 300 mph winds leveled dozens of homes, killing nine people. Memories of the storm are still fresh today.   

  Walking along the same sidewalk he strode as a youngster growing up in Tracy, Scott Thoma says the day the tornado hit is frozen forever in his memory. 

On June 13, 1968, a tornado struck Tracy, Minn.
On June 13, 1968, a tornado struck Tracy, Minn., destroying the elementary school and completely tearing off the building's third floor.
Tracy HeadlightHerald

"I can't remember what I had for breakfast this morning, but I can remember that day from beginning to end," said Thoma.  

Thoma collected dozens of stories about the tornado for "Out of the Blue," his book about the storm. He said the tornado first touched down about 8.5 miles southwest of Tracy, near Lake Shetek.  

"They spotted it outside of town," said Thoma. "A farm couple called it in, so we got pretty good warning."  

Then-recent high school graduate Cynthia Holm Sabinske was at Lake Shetek to swim that hot, humid day. But she and her friends abandoned those plans when the sky darkened.   

"They were the blackest clouds I ever saw," said Holm Sabinske.  "And they were just churning. And you could see green in the clouds. It was just unreal."  

It took the storm about eight minutes to reach Tracy.  

Another teenager who witnessed the early stages of the storm was a 15-year-old farm kid who went on to a career in the music business as a songwriter.   

The tornado that struck Tracy, Minn. destroyed about 150 vehicles.
The tornado that struck Tracy, Minn., on June 13, 1968, destroyed about 150 vehicles, including this one.
Tracy HeadlightHerald

"My name is Denny Morgan, I grew up on a farm. In southwest Minnesota, Tracy is my hometown." 

This is the opening line of a song he wrote to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the storm. Morgan sings his family was busy with farm chores that late Thursday afternoon.  

"Daddy was on his tractor, cultivating corn, when momma yelled from the back steps, there's going to be a storm."

The tornado passed near the Morgan farm a couple miles west of Tracy. The Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame member describes it as hanging in the air like the "devil's tail." And this beast of a storm was still gaining strength.  

"I never seen anything like it," said Bernie Holm. "It scared the heck out of me."

Now 90, Holm was the Tracy fire chief in 1968. As the tornado approached he ordered the sirens sounded. Then he, his wife and daughter took shelter in their basement. Their house survived, but windows broke out and debris hit the structure. The tornadic winds drove an 8-foot longboard into the house.  

"It went through the window, flying in the air, and then on through the wall, and stuck into the hardwood floor," said Holm.    

Nearby, author Scott Thoma was also in the basement with his family.  

"And, boy, you could hear that roar come over," said Thoma. "And you could hear it off in the distance sound like a vacuum cleaner first. And it gets a little closer and it sounds like a shop vac, a little bit louder. And then you hear that train coming overhead."

  While tornado survivors often report it sounded like a train passing, that comment is strangely apt in the case of that day in Tracy.

A boxcar was thrown more than 100-yards.
A boxcar was thrown more than 100 yards after a tornado, with peak winds estimated at over 300 mph, struck Tracy.
Tracy HeadlightHerald

"It was a beautiful little street, tree-lined and shaded," said Holm Sabinske. "And it was never the same. Never the same."  

Airline pilots said the tornado scattered so much broken glass that the farm fields surrounding the town sparkled like diamonds in the sunlight. The storm injured 150 people. Nine residents died. Denny Morgan paid tribute to the dead in his song.   

"Nancy Vlahos, Fred Pilatus, Otelia Werner, Ellen Morgan, Barbara Holbrook, Walter Swanson, Ella Haney, Mildred Harden, Paul Swanson, let me say we won't forget your names. It was the summer of 68, a tornado ripped our state."

Despite the losses, Tracy recovered. Hundreds of volunteers helped with the cleanup. But the town's population suffered, declining 12 percent between 1960 and 1970.   

Today, there's little evidence of the 1968 tornado except for a monument to the tornado victims. It's a reminder of the day Tracy faced a hellish test, and residents found out just how fragile life can be.

Correction (June 13, 2018): An earlier version of this story incorrectly credited the images from the Tracy HeadlightHerald.