Residents cleaning up after N. Colo. tornado
Vail, CO Colorado
WINDSOR, Colorado ” Residents of this northern Colorado farm town awoke to nightmarish scenes of destruction on Friday after a powerful tornado swept through the day before, killing one person and injuring dozens.
“I dreamed about it last night and I was really groggy, so I thought it had just been a dream. But then I looked outside and I saw that it was real,” said Ellen Jenkins, 45, who was sitting in a nearly empty coffee shop.
The tornado bounced through several towns in sprawling Weld County, damaging or destroying dozens of homes, businesses, dairies and farms. The storm pelted the region with golf ball-size hail, swept cars and trucks off roads and even tipped 15 rail cars off the tracks in Windsor, the hardest-hit town about 70 miles north of Denver.
Only 13 people were treated at hospitals, but more than 100 others got medical attention for minor injuries at a Windsor community center, said Jim Shires, a spokesman for emergency responders.
He said rescue crews with search dogs have gone through the town three times looking for the injured, and no one else is believed to be trapped.
“We’ve not been made aware of anyone missing at this point,” Shires said Friday.
He said authorities were still trying to determine how many buildings were destroyed or damaged.
“It sounded like all the doors were being torn off the house,” said Kelly Keil, who grabbed her 5-year-old daughter, Hailey, and took cover in a closet of her home, which was spared major damage.
“You could see debris just rotating, light poles, trees, you could see items being cast out from the sides,” marveled Joe Tymkowych, a police sergeant in nearby Greeley.
Jenkins said her home suffered only minor damage to a fence and a couple of trees, but some of neighbors fared worse, some losing roofs. At a nearby park, the trees were stripped bare of their springtime leaves.
Gov. Bill Ritter toured the area and declared a local state of emergency. Federal, state and local officials were assembling damage assessment teams overnight.
Heavy equipment cleared trees, utility poles, and mangled wood and metal from the streets of the east Windsor neighborhood that sustained significant damage. Police enforced an overnight curfew to deter looting and ensure residents’ safety in case of natural gas leaks. Officers with search dogs conducted a house-to-house search for anyone missing.
Resident Loree Wilkinson, 39, and her children, ages 6 and 9, huddled in a basement and prayed as the tornado passed overhead. She said her youngest child, Kazden, prayed: “Please don’t let me die because I just graduated from kindergarten.”
The large storm cloud descended nearly without warning, touching down near Platteville, about 50 miles north of Denver. Over the next hour, it skipped along a 35-mile-long northwesterly track past Gilcrest, Milliken, Greeley, Windsor and Timnath before the system moved on into southern Wyoming.
Oscar Michael Manchester, 52, was killed at a campground west of Greeley, about 60 miles north of Denver, said Weld County Deputy Coroner Chris Robillard.
The Red Cross served food to about 130 people in Windsor displaced by the storm, but by nightfall only a single family was staying at a shelter set up at a fairgrounds outside town.
The tornado overturned 15 railroad cars and destroyed a lumber car on the Great Western Railway of Colorado, said Mike Ogburn, managing director of Denver-based Omnitrax Inc., which manages the railroad. Fourteen of the overturned cars were tankers, but they were empty.
The tornado toppled tractor-trailers across Highway 85 and cut power to 60,000 customers. About 15,000 were still without power early Friday, and Xcel Energy said it could be a week before they are back on line.
“We can’t find poles, wires, transformers” where the tornado went through, Xcel spokesman Mark Stutz said Friday. “Stuff is gone. There’s nothing there.”
The utility also repaired about two dozen natural gas leaks, mostly in Windsor, that opened when houses were ripped off their foundations.
Jim Kalina, a National Weather Service meteorologist, said two or three major storm cells affected the area and that the weather service was trying to confirm how many tornados touched down.
Weld County is known as a prolific tornado spawning ground ” but its twisters are usually small, short-lived and in the county’s sparsely populated eastern plains. Thursday’s deadly tornado moved through the western part of the county.
While destructive tornadoes are generally known to roar through the Midwest, Weld County had the highest number of reported tornadoes ” 213 ” of any county in the United States between 1950 and 2000, according to the National Weather Service. About seven tornadoes are typically reported in the county each year.
Associated Press Writers Ivan Moreno and Steven K. Paulson contributed to this report.
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