Fire Chief Jim Compton was cutting grass at his house on Hugo's south side on the eve of Memorial Day when tornado sirens sounded. Within minutes, Washington County emergency dispatchers alerted him to a path of destruction in his east-metro city of 12,000 residents.

When Compton arrived at 159th Street, the first person he saw was one of his firefighters staring in disbelief at her destroyed house. Once she knew her family was safe, she joined the rescue effort.

"She blinked and down the road she went," he said. "I didn't see her for hours after that."

Such selfless acts were common after the tornado laid waste to an orderly suburban neighborhood in less than 30 seconds. The bustle of public agencies in the storm's aftermath was the largest seen in Washington County in years, putting Hugo on center stage in the drama of disaster response. Officials from several cities, including Mahtomedi and Chanhassen, have come to Hugo to learn from the city's experience.

Hugo worked from a script, an emergency plan crafted just five years ago, that described in detail every move from rescue to recovery.

"Train as if your life depends on it," Compton said, voicing the motto on the firehouse door. "I can't say that enough."

Trucks and help arrive

The first inkling of real trouble came when hundreds of phone calls flooded the county's 911 call center in Stillwater. Alerts went to city and county officials, ambulance and fire crews, sheriff's deputies, police officers, utility workers and even educators at Oneka Elementary School, where victims would arrive.

Chris Petree, the city's public works director, arrived home at 5575 Finley Bay N. minutes after the siren sounded. He and his wife, Nora, scooped up their 2-year-old daughter, Greta, and ran for the basement.

"I kind of bear-hugged around them and no less than 20 or 30 seconds later, the storm hit," Petree said. "First it blew all out all of the windows in the back of our house. I could feel the first level lifting up. I could hear it tear." When the tornado passed, Petree went upstairs. "I saw complete devastation out my back door. I looked up and there was nothing over my head."

Minutes after residents emerged from their houses, hail as big as baseballs pelted them. A sheriff's deputy went down, his scalp torn open.

After pulling his wife and daughter under the wreckage of a collapsed house for protection, Petree called for all of the city's loaders and other heavy equipment to clear paths for rescue workers. He also phoned City Administrator Mike Ericson at his north Maplewood home and "told him to get up here." As Petree and other city leaders executed the disaster plan, help came rolling from Washington County and cities like Forest Lake, White Bear Lake, Stillwater, Mahtomedi and Oakdale.

"It worked like clockwork," said Jodi Guareschi, another Hugo firefighter whose house was damaged by the tornado. "We had people who just emerged on this town and put their arms around it."

She had been boating on the Mississippi River near Red Wing when a fellow firefighter called. She raced back to Hugo and got to 159th Street, the "hot zone."

When Guareschi reached her house, she found siding gone and a large hole in the roof. Broken glass was stuck in the carpet and walls. "All I could think about," she said, "was getting home to get my uniform on and get back out there."

The volunteer Fire Department refreshed its disaster training just two weeks ago, Compton said.

"This has been embedded in our minds and our actions and this is how we do our day-to-day business," he said.

Deputies and state troopers cleared the neighborhood. Metro Transit buses moved evacuees to the school. Workers shut off gas, electricity and water. The Red Cross and Salvation Army brought food and supplies.

And sometime in those early moments of shock and disbelief, neighbors tried to resuscitate 2-year-old Nathaniel Prindle and his sister, 4-year-old Annika. Nathaniel didn't make it. His sister remains in critical condition at Gillette Children's Hospital in St. Paul. About 30 people were injured and 17 were taken to hospitals, officials have said.

The city's disaster plan, Compton said, "hit the mark."

Emergency responders from other cities came to see Hugo in action and are taking lessons home to implement.

Ed Coppersmith, emergency manager and deputy fire marshal from Chanhassen, came to Hugo last week to learn how it worked. Chanhassen will compile phone numbers of more outside agencies to help with a response and will assemble more after-hours numbers for food and supplies.

Todd Rogers, who is fire chief in Mahtomedi, came to the scene soon after the tornado hit. He realized that his department ought to stockpile additional maps in its emergency vehicles to share with agencies responding from other cities. And they will buy more paint and tools to mark buildings that have been evacuated or where gas was shut off.

Hugo's last tornado, in 1965, killed six people. Coppersmith said no city should underestimate the probability of a disaster like Hugo experienced last week.

"The longer it's been since the last incident the closer we are to the next one," he said. "Can it happen in Chanhassen? Yes." • 651-298-1554 • 651-298-1550