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'Heartbreaking': people in Barron, Rusk counties get first look at remains after 'devastating' tornadoesSubmitted: 05/18/2017
Ben Meyer
Ben Meyer
Managing Editor / Senior Reporter
bmeyer@wjfw.com

'Heartbreaking':  people in Barron, Rusk counties get first look at remains after 'devastating' tornadoes
CHETEK, BRUCE - Adults and kids trickled back into the Prairie Lake Estates Mobile Home Park in Chetek on Wednesday, trying to hide the pain and sadness as they looked at their former homes.

On Tuesday evening, a tornado demolished the park. Of the 48 mobile homes, 23 were flattened to rubble, and 15 were lifted away completely by high winds. Forty-six-year-old Eric Gavin died in the storm, and 25 others were injured.

Police started allowing people back into the park Wednesday afternoon.


"It's just heartbreaking to look out here and see this," said Robert Black, whose mobile home was rendered unlivable by the storm.

The first week of retirement greeted Black rudely. Instead of relaxing, just one week after he retired as a truck driver, Black and his family were clinging to what they could salvage from their mobile home.

"Our trailer lifted right up off the frame, maybe three, four feet off the ground, then it slammed down," said Black, who rode out the storm in the mobile home. "Then it would go up and slam down, come right back down on the frame."

Once the winds seemed to die down, he peeked outside.

"I opened my door and I looked out," Black said. "[It was] devastating. I couldn't believe what I was seeing across the park. No trailers."

Black said he rushed across the park to pull a wall off a woman trapped underneath.

"We were literally pulling walls off of people that were trapped inside their trailers or outside their trailers," said Barron County Sheriff Chris Fitzgerald.

Fitzgerald started letting people back to the sites of their homes at about 1 o'clock Wednesday afternoon.

"Basically, they're going to get there and find nothing left of their homes," he said. "The devastation is unbelievable. It's sad that one person died, but it's a miracle that we didn't have more."

Gov. Scott Walker toured the storm damage Wednesday afternoon, also marveling that more people weren't killed.

"If it had been later in the night, it could have been much more tragic because of where people were at in and around the region," Walker said.

The National Weather Service was on site on Wednesday, trying to reconstruct the path and strength of the tornado.

"It was an oddity of this tornado. It started in this area, general area of where we're standing, and basically went 30 miles," Fitzgerald said. "This is a 30-mile stretch of destruction."

Indeed, damage was heavy 30 miles east of Chetek, in the Rusk County community of Bruce.

"You could hear the snap, crackle, and pop of the trees busting off up here," said Dick Meyer, who listened from his basement as he clung to his dog.

After the storm, he emerged to find a different landscape around his forested home.

"All I saw was daylight," Meyer said. "It used to be that you just saw trees."

Meyer's neighbor, Andi Hoage, feels fortunate to have missed out on worse damage. Before the tornado hit, she found out her home was in its direct path.

"All of a sudden it said, 'If you are five miles south of Bruce, take cover now,'" Hoage said. "I said, 'Jim [her husband], I think we'd better get under the stairwell.'"

Hoage described the sound like a freight train as trees snapped and the wind blew.

"Trees falling and falling and the rain," she said. "It was very horrendous."

Barron and Rusk counties have declared states of emergency after the storm.

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