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The Daily Republic's 2014 Person of the Year

WESSINGTON SPRINGS -- At 6:54 p.m. June 18, a tornado was spotted on the ground in rural Jerauld County. In Wessington Springs, the seat of Jerauld County, the storm sirens went off after Sheriff Jason Weber became aware of the situation and acti...

The 2014 Person of the Year goes to the Wessington Springs first responders, including, from left, Jerauld County Deputy Sheriff Shane Mentzer, Deputy Michael Krueger and Sheriff Jason Weber. (Matt Gade/Republic)
The 2014 Person of the Year goes to the Wessington Springs first responders, including, from left, Jerauld County Deputy Sheriff Shane Mentzer, Deputy Michael Krueger and Sheriff Jason Weber. (Matt Gade/Republic)
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WESSINGTON SPRINGS -- At 6:54 p.m. June 18, a tornado was spotted on the ground in rural Jerauld County.

In Wessington Springs, the seat of Jerauld County, the storm sirens went off after Sheriff Jason Weber became aware of the situation and activated them with his handheld radio. In less than an hour, another tornado would drop from the sky and slam into Wessington Springs. It destroyed 15 homes and significantly damaged another 44, and displaced at least 77 people. But, despite the widespread property damage, the tornado caused no serious injuries.

For the impact they had on the lives of the victims, the responders to the June 18 tornado in Wessington Springs were selected, collectively, as The Daily Republic's 2014 Person of the Year.

Weber acted quickly to warn those in potential danger after the first tornado touched down.

"I tried to call as many people as I knew out there in that part of the county," Weber told The Daily Republic in an interview Tuesday. "I stopped at a few farm places and told them to take cover, and to call as many people as they could."

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At 7:10 p.m., a separate tornado was spotted farther to the south. Weber tracked the second tornado while one of his deputies, Shane Mentzer, continued to follow the first.

Weber called another one of his deputies, Mike Krueger, and asked him to begin warning residents in Wessington Springs to find cover as soon as possible.

Krueger went house to house, focusing on those he knew lacked basements or were home to elderly residents. In the background, the storm sirens continued to sound.

"There were a lot of people already in their basements, which was a good thing," Krueger said.

Jim Vavra, the town's fire chief, gathered about 15 firefighters and worked to clear the parks and assisted residents at the nursing home and hospital.

"It was going to be a new experience," Vavra said. "The first big decision was choosing where to start."

At Springs Country Club, a nine-hole golf course in the northeast part of town, Betsy Krohmer was golfing when she heard the storm sirens. Krohmer, a volunteer paramedic, had a scanner with her and heard the communication among law enforcement as the tornadoes touched down. She, too, began to warn as many people as she could.

The entire day, Krohmer said, the weather was warm and humid. In what seemed like an instant, it turned cool.

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"You could just feel the change in the air," she said.

At 7:35 p.m., Weber watched from a road a few miles south of town as new funnel clouds began to form south of Wessington Springs. He called his wife and asked her to call and warn as many neighbors as possible.

Vavra and the other firefighters took shelter at the Jerauld County Courthouse, where other residents with nowhere else to go had already gathered to wait out the storm.

At 7:45 p.m., a tornado hit Wessington Springs. Weber watched the shredded remains of homes and businesses scatter in the wind, and saw the white flashes of power lines being torn apart.

Krueger was racing toward his home, but was still blocks away when the tornado struck. There was so much debris in the air, it was impossible to tell where the tornado actually came down, he said. Vavra, too, watched the tornado tear into the town.

"It was almost like a bad dream," Vavra said. "You were hoping you were going to wake up."

Krohmer huddled with several other women in the downstairs bathroom of a home near the golf course.

"I only had my golf cart, so there was no way I was going to get across town and back to my house," she said.

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Krohmer and the others safely waited out the storm. The house they were in escaped relatively unscathed. Once the storm passed, Krohmer headed straight for the hospital, which was only about a block away. On the way, she saw wreckage scattered everywhere.

"I could see the pieces of debris, but couldn't really see how bad it was," she said.

Power lines on the ground outside the hospital hinted at the extent of the damage in other parts of the town, she said.

Krohmer and other paramedics quickly worked to clear the area around the ambulance of debris. The hallways inside the hospital were lined with beds, ready to receive anyone hurt in the storm.

Meanwhile, Weber arrived back in town and saw up close the damage caused by the tornado.

"I was running over two-by-fours and big pieces of sheet metal with my car," he said. "I was concerned for my family and the guys I work with. Were they alive? I don't know."

In the immediate aftermath of the tornado, law enforcement and firefighters regrouped and began the process of accounting for all of the town's residents. Krohmer assisted in the effort, but was able to return to her neighborhood about an hour after the tornado. One of her former classmates saw her return, and quickly embraced her. Others told Krohmer they had been trying, desperately, to find her.

"They thought I was dead," she said.

Krohmer's home was gone. Her 7-week-old puppy, though, was found without a scratch half a block away, buried in the wreckage of her home.

"It was just a lot to take in," she said.

According to the National Weather Service in Sioux Falls, the path of the tornado that hit Wessington Springs was more than 2 miles long and 200 yards wide, with wind speeds as high as 135 mph. In addition to the homes hit, the tornado damaged 12 businesses, including three that were completely destroyed.

The weather service rated the tornado as an EF-2, the fourth most severe rating on a scale from EF-0, the lowest rating, to EF-5, the highest rating.

"It was unbelievable nobody was killed or seriously injured," Weber said.

It took a few hours for responders to account for everybody after the storm and ensure no one was seriously hurt.

"That might have been the biggest relief of my life, because right away we had no idea," Vavra said.

Weber and Krueger agreed without the early warning, the tornado would likely have caused serious injuries, or even deaths.

"We had several houses that were wiped completely out -- nothing left but a cement slab," Weber said. "There was no safe place in a lot of those houses."

Krohmer, too, said she was relieved that night to learn there had been no serious injuries or deaths.

"It could have been a lot worse," she said. "If there was a funeral, our cleanup would not have gone on as fast as it did."

If there was no advance warning, Krohmer believes she would still have been outside when the tornado hit.

"I think it saved a lot of lives," she said.

There was little time for those involved in the response to reflect on the impact of their actions in the days after the storm.

"We knew we had a job to do," Weber said.

Now, more than six months later, the rebuilding of homes and businesses continues for many victims of the tornado.

"When you see a house that's gone and you know they would have died, and you know they saved their life, it's a different feeling," Weber said.

From left, Sanborn County Sheriff Tom Fridley, Wessington Springs firefighter Dustin Weber, Jerauld County Sheriff Jason Weber and Jerauld County Deputy Sheriff Shane Mentzer check off locations on a map June 18 at the command center inside the Wessington Springs Fire Hall after a tornado hit the community. (Sean Ryan/The Daily Republic)
First responders check off locations on a map at the command center inside the Wessington Springs Fire Hall after a tornado hit the community Wednesday night. (Daily Republic file photo)

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