Twenty years ago Saturday, about 5:30 p.m., one of the strongest tornadoes in state history blew apart the small southwestern Minnesota city of Chandler, destroying 49 of its 131 homes, injuring more than 30 people and wiping away nearly every familiar landmark. Damage in today's dollars was $24.6 million. One woman died six weeks later; she'd been injured when a wall fell on her. She waited out the storm in her basement. It was the last F5 tornado to touch down in Minnesota.

Two stories

Former city clerk Al Vis, now in his 44th year as an emergency responder, was in an emergency vehicle with several others when they spotted the tornado bearing down on Chandler. They radioed back to town to have the sirens activated, but could not outrun the vortex, which dragged the truck from highway speed to about 25 miles per hour, despite Vis having floored the gas pedal, while tearing off the exhaust system.

"We didn't even recognize the city anymore," Vis recalled. "All the landmarks were totally destroyed. The thing that was really eerie -- we were out of power for about two weeks -- was as you drove into Chandler after dark, there was no electricity and no streetlights. It was pitch black. You really had to think about where you were, and I've lived here since 1964."

Cal Tinklenberg, fire chief at the time, didn't have time to get back to the station after cruising through town warning people to seek shelter. He did get into his own basement, and suffered major injuries when his home was hit. But he managed to grab his radio and tell his dispatcher to call for help from every surrounding community.

"I'm just thankful it didn't come at midnight," said Tinklenberg. Today, storms don't bother him.

"What bothers me is if you have the window open a crack and the wind howls through," he said. "Amplify that hundreds of times. That's what it was like. That wind just screamed."

The ratings change: The Chandler tornado was rated an F5, which means damage assessors estimated its peak gusts as having been between 262 and 317 miles per hour. Under the subsequent EF (Enhanced Fujita) scale, it would be rated EF5 but its peak gusts would be 200 to 234 mph.

The rarity: Less than 0.1 of 1 percent of U.S. tornadoes are EF5s. Minnesota has experienced seven F5 tornadoes since 1883.

The deadliest: A tornado on April 14, 1886, killed 72 people in St. Cloud and Sauk Rapids, the most in Minnesota history.

Bill McAuliffe • 612-673-7646