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The Winds of Destruction
Jun 24, 2013
Sharon Weron was riding a horse home from a neighboring farm near Bowdle in 1955 when she got caught in the middle of a tornado. She heard a noise like an oncoming train and her horse began to run in panic.
Sharon doesn't remember much after that, but neighbors reported that the tornado lifted Sharon and the horse off the ground and she was found in a ditch one thousand feet away. She was remarkably unharmed, except for some bruises and swollen ears, but she didn't speak for several days. The horse survived, too, and both were fast celebrities. News people came from across the country to write the story. Sharon even became the star of a film that re-enacted her wild ride for a British cable TV channel. "It's shown every tornado season," she told South Dakota Magazine a few years ago.
Sharon's impromptu tornado ride also garnered her the bragging rights for being transported the longest distance by a tornado by the Guinness Book of World Records. That lasted until 2006 when a teenage boy in Missouri was sucked out of a mobile home and propelled over 1,300 feet.
Tornadoes are not far from most South Dakotans’ minds whenever our summer days turn dark. On average there are 28 tornados per year in our state. The most tornadoes reported in a single day happened on June 24, 2003 when 67 funnels blew across our prairies in an eight-hour period. South Dakotans remember the record-breaking day as Tornado Tuesday.
The Fujita scale estimates the strength of a tornado based on damage wreaked by the storm. Most of the tornadoes that day in 2003 were weak, ranking as F0 to F1 on the F0-F5 scale. But one registered as an F4 and demolished Manchester, a tiny Kingsbury County town. Luckily there were no casualties.
Another storm in 1992 hit the tiny town of Chester. Citizens were evacuated for 19 hours after a tornado with winds measuring 113 and 157 mph damaged infrastructure, including a 12,000-gallon ammonia tank. Residents returned home after the gas dissipated.
The devastating May 1998 twister that leveled the town of Spencer and killed six people was one of the deadliest our state has endured. One hundred and fifty people were injured.
A June 17, 1944 Wilmot tornado claimed 8 lives, and injured 43. That storm is not listed on official records but is the deadliest in South Dakota history.
Seven died, all in the same home, on May 27, 1899 near Bijou Hills. A twister struck the Peterson farm, killing the father and six of the eight Peterson children. Neighbors rushed to help and found Mrs. Peterson in a muddy field, confused and injured. At first sight, rescuers thought she was an animal of some sort. Eleven-year-old Earl Peterson was found a half-mile away, alive but pinned in mud by a stick that had pierced through his clothing. Another son, Alvah, survived by seeking shelter in the storm cellar, huddling alongside a huge bull snake.
The editor of the Chamberlain Register wrote that seeing the wagons loaded with coffins on the day of the Peterson funerals "made even the most hardened persons contemplate the uncertainty of life, and the certainty of death” in South Dakota.