Twenty-five years ago this Friday at about 5 p.m., a massive F5 tornado touched down in northwest Nobles County.
Its first victim was a two-house farmstead to the east of Leota. It then went on to ravage Chandler and half of Lake Wilson, destroying more than 75 homes, injuring 40, killing one and causing more than $50 million in property damage. It was the only F5 tornado that year, and one of the strongest ever, with wind speeds exceeding 260 miles per hour as it tore through Chandler.
On June 16, 1992, Gaylene Chapman, a Lake Wilson resident and the site coordinator at the Murray County Museum, dropped her mother off at her Chandler apartment on what was a hot, muggy day.
As she and her three children traveled home to Lake Wilson, a dark black cloud followed them.
“It was the darkest black I’ve ever seen, and the sky, it was full of lightning; it never quit flashing,” Chapman said.
When Chapman arrived back home, she quickly turned on the news. The weatherman said there was a large tornado near Chandler that was heading north. Then, just like that, the weatherman disappeared as the power went out.
Chapman got the information she needed. North meant Lake Wilson. And traveling at 35 mph, it wouldn’t take the tornado long to get there.
Chapman brought her kids into the basement, but walked back up to her window to check the tornado’s progress. Two very tall jet streams, stacked on top of each other, stood menacingly at the top of the hill, encroaching onto the town.
When the tornado hit town, Chapman couldn’t hear it all too well. She had thrown Legos onto the floor to keep her kids busy and distracted. The clacks of the Legos being thrown into a pail muted the violent winds.
They stayed in the basement for a long time to be safe, as Chapman expected the house would be flattened.
“I was so sure that my house was going to disappear,” Chapman said.
In a stroke of luck, it hadn’t. When the family walked out of the basement, everything was pitch black. Mud had covered all of the windows and even seeped through the open windows onto the curtains.
Outside, it was dead quiet. Not a single bird could be heard chirping. The only sound was the high-pitched whistle of busted LP gas tanks releasing pressure.
“It was just ominous, it was so weird,” Chapman said.
Chapman’s husband arrived in his pickup truck, carrying a message that the entire west side of town had been hit hard.
He was supposed to be working in a truck garage changing tires that day, but it was too hot and humid, so he and his friends went to the bar.
“First time I was happy my husband was at the bar, because that truck garage was gone,” Chapman said.
As Chapman drove over to the mostly ruined west side of town, fallen power lines and trees stopped their progress. Chapman took out her camcorder to take video of the destruction.
At this point, Lake Wilson residents still had no idea what kind of damage Chandler had taken. Half of the town had been completely leveled by the first tornado that evening, and a second tornado struck the town at 9:10 p.m.
Only foundations were left where houses once stood. Grain elevators had had their tops blown right off.
Chapman’s mother had seen her apartment completely wiped out. She and her tenants hid in a storage area in the bottom level and held the door shut throughout the storm.
The tornado badly damaged the Chandler-Lake Wilson School, which had only opened in 1972. The building had been rendered unusable, with an entire top floor wiped out.
After the tornado, the school consolidated with Slayton, creating Murray County Central.
Despite the widespread devastation, much of Lake Wilson and Chandler were rebuilt, and countless families that experienced the tornado still live there to this day.
This Saturday is the Chandler-Lake Wilson all school reunion. The all-day event will feature a 5K run, mud volleyball, a bean bag tournament, laser tag, food and a live performance from Mankato band IV Play. More information can be found on http://cityoflakewilson.org.
Additionally, the Murray County Museum will host an exhibit on the tornado in the near future. It will feature pictures, Chapman’s video and quotes from residents that survived the tornado.
Janet Timmerman, Murray County Museums Coordinator, said the exhibit isn’t ready yet but should be ready in time for the Murray County Fair in August.