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JUSTINE WETTSCHRECK/DAILY GLOBE The top of the Chandler water tower, an iconic image of the Buffalo Ridge tornadoes, is now incorporated into a memorial that was dedicated 10 years ago.

'It was terrible, but we lived'

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LEOTA --At the Bud and Clara Rozeboom acreage, just up the hill from Leota, there were two homes, 12 buildings, three silos, farm equipment and several vehicles in June of 1992. And then there was nothing.

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The tornado that dropped down in Leota June 16, 1992, and made its way through Chandler and Lake Wilson caused millions of dollars in destruction and altered the lives of many people in southwest Minnesota.

"After it went through, everything was gone," Clara Rozeboom explained 20 years later. "What wasn't gone was destroyed."

In the late afternoon, the air was still, humidity was high and everything was hot and sticky. The National Weather Service issued tornado watches in several areas, and shortly before 5 p.m., the sky went dark in the Leota area. Residents described the color of the sky as green and brown, then it was like midnight fell over the land.

"It was so dark the outside lights came on," Clara said. "Even the lights in Leota came on, I heard."

Bud was preparing to take a shower, and Clara looked out her south garage window. What she saw looked "like Niagara Falls," she said. She took three steps into the basement, but a thought stopped her.

"Our acreage was surrounded by trees, and I didn't know if (daughter and son-in-law) Sharon and Dave would be able to see what was happening," she explained. "I ran back down the hall and called Sharon and told them, 'Get in the basement - it's bad.'"

Her daughter's family was all upstairs and didn't know what was heading toward them. Clara believes if she hadn't taken the time to make that quick call, they may all have died. As it was, Dave, Sharon and their children barely had time to crawl into a storage area in the basement when the tornado hit, taking the house.

Clara and Bud were huddled in their basement --Clara on a chair with her head down, and Bud under the stairwell.

"Pretty soon I said, 'Where are you?' and he said he was under the steps. Then we couldn't hear each other," Clara stated.

The freight train roar of the storm, coupled with the intense blackness, left the Rozebooms blind to what was happening. Cement blocks started to fly through the air as the tornado sucked their home up into the whirling winds. The blocks repeatedly struck Clara's legs and back as she hunched over in an effort to protect herself.

"Each time I was hit, I said to myself, 'I'm still alive,'" Clara recalled.

Pipes split, dousing her with water, and electric wires were torn free. And then there was silence.

"I looked up, and there was blue sky above me," Clara said. "I don't remember who it was that said it, but one of us asked, 'Are you there?' and the other answered. Then we found each other and hugged and said, 'We're alive.'"

Bud starting running to get out of the basement, and pushed Clara up in front of him out into the daylight. The electricity was off and power line poles were gone. The couple looked over to their daughter's house and saw that it was completely gone.

"It was dead quiet," Clara said. "Not a sound."

Battered and limping, the couple made their way across the grove, then heard Dave hollering his daughter's name.

"Paula, Paula!" Clara echoed. "I thought she was dead."

Instead, the traumatized girl had started running toward the town of Leota. The adults caught her and brought her back, and eventually someone came from town and picked them up, bringing them to the home of a nurse. Clara was taken to the hospital, where she stayed overnight.

"I hurt terribly, my legs were black and blue, but we were still alive," she said.

A neighbor had stood and watched the tornado suck up the Rozeboom farm, and later told the family about the experience.

"It took 32 seconds to destroy our farm," Clara relayed.

She learned later that the "Niagara Falls" effect she had seen was not just in her head. A meteorologist with the National Weather Service told her she had likely witnessed the tornado from the inside, its eye, but because it had just touched down, it wasn't carrying dirt and debris. Clara also learned the tornado had touched down, started directly toward Leota, then suddenly "jiggered and went diagonally across the field to our farm."

"If it had hit Leota, it would have killed so many people," she speculated. "It probably would have taken the whole town."

The tornado was a quarter of a mile wide went it touched down in Leota and had grown to a half mile wide when it churned through Chandler and Lake Wilson.

It may have been 20 years ago, but June 16, 1992, is a date Clara will never forget.

"It was terrible, just terrible, but we lived," she stated.

Clara and Bud's daughter, Connie Witzel, later asked residents of Leota and the area to write down their thoughts about that day, and she compiled them into a book titled "In a Matter of Seconds."

Residents of Leota, Chandler and Lake Wilson did the same, compiling letters, poems and statements into "Buffalo Ridge Tornado, June 16, 1992."

The books recount the events that took place in their lives before, during and after the tornadoes that wreaked havoc June 16, 1992. Adults and children wrote of going about their daily lives, doing chores, playing outside, traveling home after a long, humid day, then watching the sky turn black.

Chandler Postmaster Loren Gens, who was a letter carrier in Worthington 20 years ago, still has his copy of the book and vividly remembers the details of June 16.

He was running late as he headed home that day, having experienced car trouble. As he came into Chandler, he met a fire truck at the top of the hill, and the sky went black. He thought he was seeing a tornado, but it was so wide he couldn't see a tail. Just one big wall of black. He fought to keep the vehicle on the road as he headed to his house two miles west of town, racing to reach his wife and son before the tornado hit.

"The first tornado didn't touch our house," Gens said. "The second one tore up shingles and twisted the house. Eventually the walls started cracking."

Gens had downed trees and a heifer with a broken hip, but what sticks in his memory the most are the odd things he witnessed as he drove to town to help with cleanup.

"There was an Angus bull with what looked like his head stuck in the dirt and his legs straight out," he recalled. "I'll never forget that sight."

He'll also never forget the way people came together to help each other after the natural disaster. Some who lost their homes never did rebuild, he said, but instead moved on to other places.

Daily Globe Reporter Justine Wettschreck may be reached at

376-7322.

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