CHETEK, WIS. – As they picked their way Wednesday through a field of debris toward the 20-foot mound of twisted metal and jagged wood that once was their home, the three Rutledge women had only one thing on their minds: a missing dachshund named Colby.
One after the other, they shouted the dog’s name, ending with 13-year-old Mary Rutledge’s desperate cry for a pet that never turned up.
“Colby!” she screamed. “COLBY!”
A tornado that tore through the Prairie Lake Estates mobile home park just north of this western Wisconsin town of 2,200 late Tuesday afternoon killed one man, injured 27 others and sent dozens of families fleeing for shelter or from their homes in hopes of escaping injury or worse.
In all, 15 of the park’s 58 mobile homes were destroyed and many more were damaged, forcing nearly everyone who lived here to find shelter Wednesday with relatives and friends or at a local hotel before returning to the scene to assess the damage and pick through the debris.
The devastation was so complete that Barron County Sheriff Chris Fitzgerald said it was “a miracle” that there were not more deaths or serious injury.
“We thought we were going to be digging for people here for days,” he said. “Our firefighters and deputies were lifting parts of trailers off people.”
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker visited Wednesday to inspect the damage, and later declared a state of emergency for Barron, Jackson and Rusk counties.
By Wednesday afternoon, all the park’s residents had been accounted for. With gas and electrical lines secured, police finally allowed residents to return to their homes about 3 p.m. and wander through the blasted landscape in search of precious pieces of their lives.
For the Rutledge family it was a day of heartbreak and tears.
While Mary’s mom, Deeann, was away at work, she and her grandparents, Cindy and Doug Rutledge, were in their home when the tornado hit. On Wednesday, not only was the trailer in ruins and their dog missing, but Doug Rutledge lay in a nearby hospital in critical condition. Doctors had performed emergency surgery to relieve pressure on his brain after he was crushed by a refrigerator.
Other residents, too, wandered amid the mess, searching for pets and possessions and trying to make sense of what had happened less than 24 hours before.
“You see this stuff on the Weather Channel and you never think it could happen to you,” said Ron Blomberg. “It’s a lot to take in.”
Slowly, tentatively, Blomberg and others dug through the massive piles of wreckage, picking out stuffed animals, household appliances and family keepsakes. Often they’d stop, arms folded, staring at the mess the twister left behind.
“I’m in a little bit of shock,” Blomberg said. “One minute you’re sitting there in your home, and then the next. …”
Blomberg lived next door to Eric Gavin, 45, who was killed by the tornado. Gavin’s body was found near the shattered remains of his trailer. Blomberg believes that he and his fiancée, Marissa Rhoades, would have died, too, were it not for a last-minute warning from Blomberg’s father, who called and told him to “get out of there.”
Without the call, Blomberg said, “We would have been right there with Eric. There’s not a shred of our trailer left.”
Blomberg said he and Gavin were co-workers who worked the night shift at the big Jennie-O Turkey Store factory in nearby Barron. Blomberg said Gavin may have been sleeping when the twister hit.
“He was a great guy,” Blomberg said. “Very charismatic. He’d always give you a wave and a smile.”
‘Our park was gone’
Sirens went off Tuesday in the Chetek area 110 miles northeast of the Twin Cities about 25 minutes before the powerful storm hit about 5:33 p.m. The National Weather Service said the tornado generated winds exceeding 120 miles per hour, rating it a strong EF2.
The same tornado that destroyed the mobile home park also devastated a neighboring Jennie-O turkey farm, destroying four barns and severely damaging two.
Several families, meanwhile, said they escaped injury simply by jumping in their cars and speeding away. The mobile home park has no tornado shelter.
Ed Sonnenberg and his family were among those who got away.
Sonnenberg has had nightmares about tornadoes ever since he lived through one as a preschooler. Late Tuesday afternoon, those fears became reality as he packed his family — wife, mother-in-law and three kids — into their van after the tornado warning sirens sounded.
As the van sped from the park, it ran straight into a wall of hail. Convinced they were heading into the worst of the storm, the family turned back toward home. When they arrived, “our park was gone,” Sonnenberg said.
Sonnenberg said the twister had lifted and pushed his pickup, a Ford F-250 weighing about three tons, 15 feet from where it had been parked. All the pickup’s windows were shattered.
With their home in ruins, Sonnenberg said he and his family plan to stay with friends and begin looking for a house. “We wanted to get out of the trailer park,” he said, “but not like that.”
Back at what remained of the Rutledge home Wednesday, Cindy and Deeann Rutledge burrowed into the master bedroom, calling out their finds to each other as they discovered items worth keeping.
They dug up Cindy’s bag of medicine, including insulin. The deed to the home. Cindy’s Ouija board. Doug’s smokes. The TV remote.
“Baby Clyde!” Cindy called out excitedly. “Baby Clyde!” She tossed the stuffed monkey, one of Colby’s favorite toys, to Mary. As they continued to dig, rain began to fall. Deeann cut her hand on a shard of broken mirror.
Later in the evening, as rain fell and picked up strength, the Rutledges returned to the emergency shelter in the nearby town of Cameron. There had been talk at the shelter that all the missing dogs at Prairie Lake Estates had been reunited with their owners.
Not so, Cindy Rutledge said with a sad shake of her head.
“Colby,” she said, “is still missing.”
Staff writer Tim Harlow contributed to this report.