Computer Assisted Reporting

Anne Lieb, Roger Kuznia, Computer Assisted Reporting, Fall 1998

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Iowa's Deadliest Tornado Leaves Lasting Impressions

Sherry Sweet is still frightened whenever she thinks of the monstrous tornado that ripped through her city over 30 years ago.

She remembers well the F5 tornado that left 13 people dead and 450 injured in Charles City, Iowa on May 15, 1968. F5 tornadoes are the strongest possible tornadoes, possessing wind speeds ranging from 261 to 318 miles per hour.

"We're still afraid and it's going, to stay with us," Sweet said. "I'm just thankful that we're here."

Sweet, six months pregnant at the time, wasn't riding out the storm in the basement of her home on Jackson Street. She was going to pick up her husband, Tracy, from work at The Oliver Corporation, a tractor manufacturer in town. That Wednesday was Tracy's last day, as he was being laid off.

While Sweet waited in her white 1966 Plymouth Valiant near the door her husband usually exited, it began raining. The sky looked ominous. Sensing trouble, she turned on the radio to hear the announcer there was a funnel cloud sighted over Charles City's south side.

Being on the north side of town, she thought she had time to warn the people inside The Oliver Corporation building. She remembers going in, but she said the workers thought nothing of her warning. So she went back out to her car to wait for Tracy. That's when all the horror started.

One of Tracy's friends and co-workers, Jerry Fifer, came out to tell Sherry that her husband was waiting inside the personnel office door, about a block away from where she was parked.

As she started driving through the parking lot, Fifer jumped right in front of the car to warn her she was driving right into the tornado.

"He jumped into the car and said, 'There it is!"' Sweet said. "I would have driven right into it. I didn't see it, it was so massive. It was just like a big black tidal wave."

Sweet put the car into reverse to get away from the twister. As they were going backwards, Fifer saw a brick wall collapsing behind them, so she immediately stopped and then went forward to avoid that. Having avoided the most pressing dangers, Sweet stopped the car.

"I never took the car out of gear," Sweet said. "I had my foot on the brake the whole time. I was praying like you would not believe."

To avoid getting struck by the broken glass of the windows, the two rolled their windows down, put on their seat belts and hung on to each other and the steering wheel. Fifer covered Sweet with her raincoat to protect her from flying debris.

"And with that, we rose off the ground, I say 15 feet maximum," Sweet said. "I had nothing to be fearful of because I hadn't witnessed it. I was underneath the raincoat."

Since she was underneath the raincoat, she didn't realize how far off the ground the twister actually took her and Fifer. She didn't find out until six years ago in chatting with Fifer that they were four stories off the ground, high enough to see the top of the smokestack of a nearby building.

"With that, I almost got sick to my stomach," she said. "Every time I think of this now, I get shaky. It's not a pleasant thought.

"And when we came down, we came down with a thud. I went into labor pains a few hours later, but they were false."

When the tornado had passed, the two' got out of the car to survey the damage. The Plymouth had four blown tires from the impact, many dents and scratches from the hall and other flying debris. A downed light pole nearly missed hitting the car. All of the car's windows, including those rolled down, were unbroken.

After finding their 8-year-old daughter, Sally, unharmed by the storm at Sweet's mother's house, they went home, but couldn't find it. All that was left was rubble. No walls remained standing.

"It looked like a street bombed out after Hiroshima," said Tracy Sweet, Sherry's husband. "We didn't know where we were, There was nothing left."

The only death suffered close to the family was their dog, Clancy. However, Sweet knew six of the 13 folks that lost their lives. Among those were Harry Hall, 65, the washing machine repairman at Sears. Gus Mertens, 67, the shoe repairman, also lost his life. Murray Loomer, 70, who was the Sweet's neighbor on Jackson Street, was found dead on his front porch.

All of Charles City's eight churches sustained some damage. The downtown mall was badly damaged, as was Cedar Terrace, an apartment complex for the elderly. The complex was later rebuilt on the same site.

"That's the running joke in town," Charles City Press editor Mark Wicks said. "It took out all the churches, but not the bars."

Most of the Sweets' worldly possessions were destroyed, including Sally's extensive Barbie collection. Sally had all the Barbie amenities--the suitcases, all the outfits, and even the hair grooming tools. However, Sherry knew they had the best thing left.

"I never ever shed a tear because I was just so thankful that we were alive," Sweet said. "If we ever won the lottery, this was it."

The Sweets, Sherry 57, and Tracy 60, now live in a home on the outskirts of Charles City. They couldn't rebuild on the site of their old home because the city rezoned the area, thinking there would likely be commercial development in that area. Where their house once stood now stands storage garages.

"If we happen to drive up that street, I always think of it," Tracy said. "It was a strange day."

And every time Sherry hears the tornado sirens, it makes her think of that day back in 1968, when Iowa experienced its last F5 tornado.

"Jerry Fifer is my angel," she said of the man who now lives in Columbia, South Carolina. "If he had not stopped me, I would have driven right into it."

For as long as Sherry is alive the memories of that tornado will be with her.

"I started to watch (the movie) Twister a couple months ago and I shut it off," Sweet said. "I couldn't go through it."

"And when we came down, we came down with a thud. I went into labor pains a few hours later, but they were false."

When the tornado had passed, the two got out of the car to survey the damage. The Plymouth had four blown tires from the impact, many dents and scratches from the hall and other flying debris. A downed light pole nearly missed hitting the car. All of the car's windows, including those rolled down, were unbroken.

After finding their 8-year-old daughter, Sally, unharmed by the storm at Sweet's mother's house, they went home, but couldn't find it. All that was left was rubble. No walls remained standing.

"It looked like a street bombed out after Hiroshima," said Tracy Sweet, Sherry's husband. "We didn't know where we were, There was nothing left."

The only death suffered close to the family was their dog, Clancy. However, Sweet knew six of the 13 folks that lost their lives. Among those were Harry Hall, 65, the washing machine repairman at Sears. Gus Mertens, 67, the shoe repairman, also lost his life. Murray Loomer, 70, who was the Sweet's neighbor on Jackson Street, was found dead on his front porch.

All of Charles City's eight churches sustained some damage. The downtown mall was badly damaged, as was Cedar Terrace, an apartment complex for the elderly. The complex was later rebuilt on the same site.

"That's the running joke in town," Charles City Press editor Mark Wicks said. "It took out all the churches, but not the bars."

Most of the Sweets' worldly possessions were destroyed, including Sally's extensive Barbie collection. Sally had all the Barbie amenities--the suitcases, all the outfits, and even the hair grooming tools. However, Sherry knew they had the best thing left.

"I never ever shed a tear because I was just so thankful that we were alive," Sweet said. "If we ever won the lottery, this was it."

The Sweets, Sherry 57, and Tracy 60, now live in a home on the outskirts of Charles City. They couldn't rebuild on the site of their old home because the city rezoned the area, thinking there would likely be commercial development in that area. Where their house once stood now stands storage garages.

"If we happen to drive up that street, I always think of it," Tracy said. "It was a strange day."

And every time Sherry hears the tornado sirens, it makes her think of that day back in 1968, when Iowa experienced its last F5 tornado.

"Jerry Fifer is my angel," she said of the man who now lives in Columbia, South Carolina. "If he had not stopped me, I would have driven right into it."

For as long as Sherry is alive the memories of that tornado will be with her.

"I started to watch (the movie) Twister a couple months ago and I shut it off," Sweet said. "I couldn't go through it."


F5 Tornadoes in Iowa since 1953

Date

County

Number Dead

June 27, 1953

Adair

1

Oct.15, 1966

Wright

6

May 15, 1968

Chickasaw

0

May 15, 1968

Fayette

5

May 15, 1968

Floyd

13

May 15, 1968

Franklin

0

May 15, 1968

Howard

0

June 13, 1976

Boone

0

                                               

 

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Date last modified: 12/8/98