07/09/1984 at 01:00 AM EDT
At 12:50 a.m. on Friday, June 8, 1984, a tornado hit the tiny Wisconsin town of Barneveld at 250 mph, destroying nearly every building, killing nine of the 607 inhabitants and injuring another 88. That day dozens of reporters converged on the desolate scene to record the tragedy. PEOPLE's correspondent stayed on long enough to see a disaster story turn into a tale of resilience, courage and rebirth. "At the risk of sounding corny," she wrote, "these people are the embodiment of the American will and spirit." Here is their remarkable story.
Late on Thursday night, June 7, just 36 hours before she was to wed, Tory McGraw, 25, of Mount Horab, Wis., had an eerie premonition that something was wrong. She felt uneasy, vaguely disturbed, but she convinced herself that she was simply experiencing prenuptial jitters, and she managed to fall asleep. A few hours later her family awakened her with horrifying news: At 12:50 on Friday morning a tornado of astonishing force had virtually leveled the neighboring town of Barneveld, where her fiancé, Doug Manteufel, 23, lived with his family. Tory tried to call Doug but the lines were dead. Frantic, she scrambled into her Chrysler Le Baron and raced the eight miles to Barneveld to search for him. She couldn't get near the town; the state police had blocked all access roads.
Beyond those roadblocks, Barneveld, a close-knit farming community, resembled nothing so much as a scene from The Day After. The townspeople had always believed the surrounding hills would keep the 103-year-old railroad town safe from tornadoes. After a day of thunderstorms there had been an ominous silence, followed by a tremendous bolt of lightning that triggered the fire alarm at the township garage, waking all within earshot. Minutes later the twister roared in, sounding, said one witness, "like a dozen express trains." Only 25 of the town's 225 houses withstood the 20-second onslaught. The others were reduced to piles of shattered lumber or ruined hulks ripped from their foundations. Aluminum siding hung like tinsel on trees shorn of bark and branches. The municipal building, the post office, the American Legion Hall, the Village Bar and Restaurant, all three churches and the Thousand Curls Beauty Shop were blown to splinters by the 250 mph winds, which scattered birth certificates and other papers over the countryside for 100 miles. The twister blasted the new $200,000 roof off the Barneveld Public School and then, as if to demonstrate a perverse sense of humor, deposited a barn in the middle of the gymnasium. Only one landmark stood—a white water tower whose black letters spelled out the name of a town that, for all practical purposes, no longer existed.
Barred from entering this horrifying scene, Tory McGraw spent the rest of the night and the next morning making the rounds of area hospitals and a makeshift Red Cross emergency center in the Dodgeville High School gym, searching for her fiancé among the injured and dazed survivors. At noon on Friday she spotted him standing in the ruins of his family's home. Tearfully, they embraced. As the twister had ripped through, Doug's family had fled to their basement and crouched under the pool table. Doug was still on the second floor when the house collapsed. After the winds subsided, the family found themselves standing in the open. Their house, torn from its footings, lay smashed in the yard.
That evening, Tory and Doug visited their priest, Father Donald Moran, to talk about canceling their wedding. The priest urged the couple to go ahead with the ceremony anyway. "Life goes on," he told them. "People can't quit. And the marriage would be a great sign of hope." Father Moran convinced the couple, and the next afternoon the groom's mother, Beulah Manteufel, retrieved an old dress from the ruins of her home. The rest of the bridal party hastily rented clothes and all gathered to watch Doug and Tory exchange vows in St. Bridget's in nearby Ridgeway. "If God let Doug live through this," said Tory, "then He wanted us to get married."
As Father Moran had hoped, Tory and Doug's wedding served as a symbol of the resilience and indomitable spirit of the citizens of Barneveld. Despite the deaths and injuries and the more than $18 million in property damage and agricultural losses, the gutsy little town simply refused to die. Only hours after the tornado hit, American flags sprouted over the rubble. As buildings were boarded up, workers scrawled on them the town's unofficial new motto: "We're not giving up, we're going on." Living in a region of dairy farms, Barneveld's people have learned to accept the vagaries of nature in the Midwest. They mourned and buried their dead, then quickly set about the process of rebuilding. Neighbors hugged each other, shared food and clothing and began digging out. "We're a tough bunch," said tractor dealer Ernie Aschliman, 56. "Nothing's gonna beat us."
Aschliman illustrates his statement as aptly as anyone in Barneveld. The tornado was especially cruel to his family. Both his sons—Charles, 27, and Bill, 25—lost their homes. His daughter, Lori, 18, was severely injured, with a badly lacerated face and fractures of her hand, arm and shoulder, when the twister whirled her out of her car. Worst of all, Aschliman's 2-year-old grandson, Matthew, was killed in his mother's arms when a piece of flying debris pierced his skull. Despite the near biblical intensity of the plague visited upon his clan, Ernie Aschliman appeared at his storm-battered business at 2 o'clock Friday afternoon to meet his payroll—just as he has done every Friday afternoon for 20 years. "What else can we do?" he said, biting hard on his lip. "We've got to go on." Aschliman stood outside his office and surveyed the wreckage of his life's work. His office building was damaged; his repair shop was razed; 100 tractors and more than 300 other farm implements were destroyed. The damage, he estimated, was more than $1 million. But in the midst of this colossal devastation, somehow he saw hope. "By winter," he vowed, "we'll have a new place."
All across Barneveld people exhibited a similar toughness. Gloria Nechkash, 26, stood on an empty dirt square, the site of her vanished kitchen. The sink was thrown up against a tree, and her refrigerator lay on its back, the contents strewn across the lawn and into the street. Looking strained and tired, Nechkash sifted mechanically through the rubble, searching for clothes and toys for her daughters, 3-year-old Tanya and 7-year-old Becky. Suddenly her eyes brightened and she screamed with joy. "I found my wedding ring!" A moment later she unearthed another sentimental find. "Here's Tanya's blanket!" she said. "She can't sleep without her blanket and her dolly."
Across the street Postmistress Marie Dimpfl, 53, dug through the remains of what had been Barneveld's post office. She picked the postage scale and the safe from the ruins and brought them home. The next morning she raised the flag over her garage and proclaimed it the temporary post office. "Everybody has a different idea of where to begin, but I feel better with the flag out there," she said. "I love my job and I love the people here. We've always had a close community."
The sense of unity that stood Barneveld so well in its time of trial had attracted David Horner, 49, his wife, Patricia, 39, and their three sons to the community two years ago. The Homers left Fredricksburg, Ohio (pop. 650) in 1978, when they decided the area had become too citified. "I'm a country boy," David explains. "Any place with more than 1,000 people makes me nervous." Like American pioneers of earlier centuries, the Homers moved West, looking for elbow room and experiencing hard times until they found slow-paced Barneveld, set in the lovely rolling hills of Wisconsin, 26 miles from the city of Madison. At last, it seemed, the Homers had found their promised land. Their sons enjoyed the school, and David and Patricia began doing volunteer work for the Lutheran church. "It was like having a love affair with a whole lot of people," said Patricia.
Unemployed and on welfare for one year, David had finally landed a sales job with a feed company. Seven hours before he was to begin that job, the tornado struck. The Homers didn't even have time to flee to their basement. They had reached the stairs when the winds ripped the house away and tossed them onto the lawn. Pinned beneath roof beams, Patricia suffered a fractured leg and torn ligaments. David's two front teeth were knocked out and shards of glass were embedded in his back and legs. Miraculously the boys suffered only minor cuts.
Patricia was still in the hospital the next day, Saturday, when David and the boys watched a bulldozer chew up the remains of their home. They salvaged a few family photographs and a cut-glass cake plate that was an heirloom from Pat's mother, but most of their possessions were gone. Still bleeding from his cuts, David shook his head. "One second we're in the bedroom," he said, "and the next second we got nothing." Onto that bleak scene scampered Maggie, the family's pet dog that had been given up for dead. The Homers, so battered by bad luck, decided to take Maggie's return as a harbinger of better days. "I have no answers," David said, "but I know we will pick up our lives and rebuild."
On Sunday morning the entire town was uplifted by a similarly optimistic omen: At 3:38 a.m.—only 50 hours after the tornado had blown her from a second-story window along with her husband, Tom, 29, and their daughter, Shannon, 3, Katy Jo Mauger delivered a healthy baby girl. The birth of Danielle Marie Mauger became a precious metaphor for the rebirth of Barneveld. Within hours many citizens of the town came—some limping, some bandaged, some clad in ill-fitting, borrowed clothes—to worship at the Salvation Army's makeshift church in a township garage that had survived the holocaust. They prayed for the dead, thanked God that they had survived and vowed to begin anew. Salvation Army Envoy James Kennedy told the worshipers that if Jerusalem could be rebuilt, so could Barneveld.
The preacher's optimism proved contagious. In the emergency shelters where the homeless dined on such disaster menus as macaroni and baked beans, talk turned away from destruction and toward such topics as floor plans, contractors, carpenters and building supplies. That night 150 residents held an informal town meeting in the local International Harvester dealership—the only business still standing in Barneveld. Tom Mauger passed out cigars to celebrate his new baby, and the citizens took the first steps toward reconstructing their town. There were promises that the bank, the grocery store and the municipal building would be rebuilt and, even more important, School Administrator Dan Woll disclosed that an insurance policy worth nearly $2 million would go a long way toward replacing the destroyed school. "There's no doubt in my mind that we'll run school in the fall," he said, "and within a year, we'll have a building better than before." Before the meeting adjourned Pastor Jann Weaver of the Congregation United Church of Christ read from Ecclesiastes 3:1-8: "There is a time for everything and a season for every activity under Heaven. A time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to uproot."
Monday morning in Barneveld was definitely "a time to plant." Sympathetic souls from across the state arrived, eager to help and armed with shovels, rakes, pitchforks, bulldozers and dump trucks. A group of Mennonites helped clear the debris from the alfalfa and grazing fields and so did the Amish, their wide-brimmed straw hats bobbing up and down as they worked on the farmland along the tornado's 13-mile path of destruction. Contributions of food and clothing poured into Barneveld until the Red Cross refused to accept any more, and free-lance Good Samaritans offered money and everything from free lumber to free haircuts.
By Monday afternoon Barneveld rang with the sound of hammering and sawing. The power was back, phones were working, and the Barneveld State Bank was handling the town's recovery money from a temporary trailer. In his empty store grocer Ron Jabs talked not just of rebuilding but of expanding. "I'll put in a bigger meat section with bigger display cases and more self-service...." Across town Lee Pollock had begun to move his family into the basement—the only part of his house still intact—and hired a roofer to turn what had been his floor into a roof.
A week after the tornado, the debris of the old Barneveld was burning in a nearby quarry. Meanwhile, the skeletons of new buildings—including a new library—climbed toward the sky. The first completed structure belonged to Bernadette Arneson, 47, whose farmer husband, Bob, had been killed in the tornado. It was a silo, finished in time for the haying season, just as Bob would have wanted. "We've still got a long way to go but we'll make it," said Postal Clerk Mary Ann Myers, 47, who lost her home, sprained her arm and saw her 4-month-old grandson hospitalized in the tragedy. "We're a people of faith and we stick together. With those things going for us, we can't lose."