SPENCER, S.D. (KELO) — In a few days the town of Spencer will mark 25 years since the most destructive tornado in the state’s history ripped through the city.
May 30th, 1998, a tornado ripped through Spencer, killing six people. It was the second-deadliest in the state had ever seen, with winds estimated at 225 miles an hour.
“There is a rain wrapped tornado due east of us.”
The tornado destroyed most of the most of the homes in Spencer, along with five churches and the water tower. It also leveled Spencer’s only bank and a nursing home.
About 40 homes on the northern edge of town were the only ones spared from the destruction.
“People that were in their basements were killed and terribly injured the towns gone if a tornado is going to come in with this amount of fury and wrath a warning system in irrelevant.”
First responders from other communities rushed to Spencer. They found dazed people crawling from the rubble. Some people were still trapped.
“You could just feel it sucking the air out of the house, we were home and got to the basement. Were you scared? Yeah. Been that scared before. No what happened afterward? The house filled with gas, the gas meter broke. and so we knew we had to get up out of the basement.
“I knew I couldn’t outrun it in the car but and I had my 11-year-old girl with me so I pulled up in an ally behind a house and that house is still partially standing probably the only thing that saved us.”
“There was people crawling out of debris, the sound of busted gas line roaring and that’s what they went into had to get big pay loaders just to push your way into town because there was no streets just a big pile of everything.
Now retired, 25 years ago Brad Stiefvater was the McCook County Emergency Manager.
To this day he says the damage was hard to fathom.
KELO was among the first to get aerial footage of the destruction. When you see it from the helicopter, you get a real view of the path of destruction.
Once the injured were cared for, volunteers flooded the town. You can even see some of their cars parked in a nearby field.
“Pretty good inside to be able to come out and help them, you know help everybody out, in their time of need you know, its pretty terrible out here, the devastation.”
Volunteers came to help homeowners salvage what they could of their belongings before they called in heavy equipment to clear the lots.
“We’ve got some clothes, some jeans that were in a hamper.”
“Everything that is left is pretty much going to be trash.”
Stiefvater says even though they all knew the town had to be cleaned up it was an emotional time.
“A lot of the debris was buried in what we called the west Spencer grave and the east Spencer grave and when I’m talking about everything in that town buried in a pit a city block long on one end and a city block long on the other, a deep pit and it was all buried, dealing with people’s emotions on that, seeing their stuff go in that hole, it got emotional for them and for me.”
Help came from all over the region, even KELOLAND Television hosted a telethon and raised a million dollars to help the people who were now left homeless.
Before the tornado, Spencer had a population of about 315 people. Today, the sign outside of town now reads 154.
Today Spencer looks like any other small town. There are a number of people here who would like to put the tornado behind them, but it will of course always be a part of Spencer’s history.
The Spencer tornado was one of five twisters spawned by a super cell. Several farms in McCook and in nearby Hanson County were also wiped out by the tornadoes.