1 dead, 27 hurt as tornado ravages western Wisconsin trailer park

Total destruction. That's how Barron County Sheriff Chris Fitzgerald described the scene at a mobile home park near Chetek, Wis. moments after a tornado late Monday afternoon leveled 15 units and heavily damaged a dozen more. First responders lif...

Ron Bloomberg, who witnessed victim and neighbor Eric Gavin's body being recovered, embraces his fiancee, Marissa Rhoades, as he returned to his home on Wednesday, May 17, 2017. The tornado in in Chetek, Wis. the previous day flattened a trailer park and nearby trees. One person died and at least 25 were injured. (Richard Tsong-Taatarii/Minneapolis Star Tribune/TNS)

Total destruction.

That’s how Barron County Sheriff Chris Fitzgerald described the scene at a mobile home park near Chetek, Wis. moments after a tornado late Monday afternoon leveled 15 units and heavily damaged a dozen more.

First responders lifted walls to reach people trapped under the debris while making their way through what was left of the Prairie Lake Estate Mobile Home Park after the twister struck. More than two dozen people were injured as the tornado felled trees and tossed cars and trailers about. One man died.

“We thought we were going to be digging for people here for days,” Fitzgerald said. “Our firefighters and deputies were lifting parts of trailers off people.”

Officials in Barron County and neighboring Rusk County have declared a state of emergency. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker is expected to arrive in Barron County Wednesday afternoon to meet with victims and inspect the widespread damage that also included a turkey barn across the street from the mobile home park that had just been rebuilt two years ago after a bird flu outbreak.


Cindy Rutledge and her daughter Mary, right, search for her dachshund. (Richard Tsong-Taatarii/Minneapolis Star Tribune/TNS)

A wide swath of damage extended east into neighboring Rusk County where seven to eight homes were damaged near Bruce, Fitzgerald said.

Sirens went off Monday in the Chetek area about 25 minutes before the powerful storm hit about 5:33 p.m. A spokesman for the National Weather Service confirmed that it was a tornado, but the agency was still trying to determine the twister’s strength.

The high winds were no match for the 50 to 60 trailers in the park 110 miles northeast of the Twin Cities. Only concrete slabs remained Wednesday where 15 trailers once stood. A dozen more were severely damaged and gas and electricity to the park had to be shut down for safety reasons.

Rescue workers who shed softball uniforms and dress clothes and put on their fire gear raced to the scene Monday and went door to door to rescue people, Fitzgerald said. By 11:25 p.m., all residents of the park had been accounted for.

More than 27 people were injured in all and 17 of them were taken by ambulances to hospitals. Some were treated and released while others were still receiving care Wednesday, Fitzgerald said.


The tornado flattened a turkey farm near a trailer park in Chetek, Wis. (Richard Tsong-Taatarii/Minneapolis Star Tribune/TNS)

Authorities identified the man killed as Eric Gavin, 45, whose body was found outside his damaged trailer.

With no homes to return to, residents stayed Tuesday and Wednesday with family members, friends or motels. Two stayed at a shelter in nearby Cameron, authorities said.

At noon Wednesday, some residents were allowed back into the trailer park, officials with Wisconsin Emergency Operations Center said.

Meanwhile, classes in the Chetek-Weyerhaeuser School District were called off Wednesday as authorities and residents worked to assess the widespread damage and begin the cleanup.

Besides the mobile home park, there were several reports of other structures and vehicles damaged with downed trees in other parts of Barron County, Fitzgerald said. Campers landed in nearby lakes, he said.

The Red Cross and the Salvation Army set up a shelter and were providing food and clothes for displaced families.

Chetek Mayor Jeff Martin said community members also were pitching in.


“I’ve been inundated with calls from people asking what they can do to help,” he said Wednesday morning. “It’s heartwarming. Everybody wants to help.”

The Sheriff’s Office asked members of the community to stop bringing donations for now until needs can be assessed. The county plans to open a volunteer reception center on Friday to coordinate cleanup efforts, officials said.

A German shepherd guards what remains of a former home. (Richard Tsong-Taatarii/Minneapolis Star Tribune/TNS)

In addition to the touchdown near Chetek, Kyle Kriegl of the Red Cross said, there was a second touchdown in Rusk County, Wis., near Conrath, a hamlet of fewer than 100 people. He said he was not aware of any injuries in that touchdown. But the Red Cross did have a reception center set up in nearby Ladysmith, Wis., to help anyone who needed it.

A strong area of rotation within a thunderstorm was detected on radar in Southeast Polk County, Wis., around 4:40 p.m. Monday and then moved into Barron County, the National Weather Service said. The thunderstorm continued to move east-northeast through Rusk County with many reports of damage.

The tornadoes were part of a system of severe storms that rolled through the northern Chippewa Valley on Tuesday evening. The severe storm that hit the Chetek area started to develop about two hours earlier in the St. Paul area, according to meteorologist Mike Griesinger of the National Weather Service in Chanhassen.

“This was a supercell that developed, a discrete storm,” he said Tuesday night. “It was around 3:30 p.m. that we started seeing signs of a thunderstorm. It quickly gained strength over Washington County.”

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