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Haunting stories of the monster twisters that ripped through Comfrey, St. Peter 20 years ago

The stories are very real and very emotional.

The tornadoes that destroyed the small towns of Comfrey and St. Peter on March 29, 1998 were so powerful that a woman caught outside during the storm was left with sand embedded in her face. 

It's those types of experiences that have left haunting memories for the people of the southern Minnesota towns, who hunkered down in their basements in fear of their lives as they listened to the sounds of their homes being shredded by 200+ mph winds. 

"As nasty a storm as you want to see on the radar," National Weather Service meteorologist Todd Krause explained to BMTN. "In my career, March 29 of '98 is the worst day that I've worked." 

Krause was part of the damage survey team in Comfrey and St. Peter, in addition to surrounding areas that were hit hard by the 14 tornadoes that formed that day. 

"It was really weird getting into Comfrey. I say weird, that's what it was," Krause said. "It was like walking into a ghost town. There was nobody there, it was just all this damage. The people of Comfrey had been evacuated because of some gas leak."

Comfrey was viciously assaulted by an F-4 tornado, the second strongest possible, packing winds of more than 200 mph and capable of causing extreme damage, as evidenced in the photo below. 

The F4 roared across the ground for 77 minutes, rampaging through farmland and homes for 67 miles from just north of Fulda to just west of Nicollet, and blasting right through Comfrey and the Lake Hanska area. 

After the Comfrey monster dissipated, a new beast formed to the east of Nicollet and went on to rip through St. Peter, producing F3 damage and an experience that the town of 11,000 people will never forget. 

Two people died in the tornadoes, an 85-year-old man near Lake Hanska, Louis Mosenden, and a 6-year-old boy, Dustin Schneider, near St. Peter.

"Seeing the two locations of the fatalities, I still think of the family of little 6-year-old Dustin Schneider and what they must be going through," Krause said. "It's got to be a difficult time of year for them." 

KMSU radio recorded survivors recounting their experiences at a recent “Tell Me a Story: The 20th Anniversary of the 1998 Tornado" event in St. Peter, the content of which it shared with BMTN.

The following stories are very real and very emotional.

'There was sand embedded in her face'

"I heard the sirens, went into the hall and shortly after everything went pitch black," said Michelle Kaisersalt. "I was crouched down in my heels and my skirt, and I could literally feel – and I still to this day can remember feeling – the brick walls shake down in the basement. Hearing the doors slam upstairs, and the windows breaking and the glaze buckets flying."

After the tornado passed, she and another man looked outside and were stunned by the visual of a "woman standing, hanging onto a street sign with no protection."

"There was sand embedded in her face," she said before adding that the woman was searching for her husband who had been caught outside in the storm with her.

Moments later they heard screams from beneath a pile of bricks. It was the woman's husband, who survived, but not before leaving an imprint of his body in the mud. 

There could not be a God

"There could not be a God," Melinda Kjarum said, telling her frightening story of first seeing the tornado, which she said "wasn't black, it was worse than black." 

According to Krause, the nasty tornadoes got as wide as a mile and a quarter, making it almost too large to see for people on the south side of the storm.

"The one that went across in '98 was so rain-wrapped, and so wide – a mile and a quarter – people didn't really recognize it as a tornado coming at them," he said. 

How do you say I love you and goodbye?

Michele Rusinko, a dance teacher at Gustaus Adolphus, lives across the street from Minnesota Square Park in St. Peter, which was right in line with the damage path. 

She remembers hearing Bruce Davis on a local radio station (KRBI) saying: "Take this seriously, this tornado is heading straight for St. Peter."

"Then you started hearing the glass breaking. Then the sounds of everything crashing around," she said. "I remember taking my son and finding the most internal room, and how do you say I love you and maybe goodbye to an 18-month-old child? So I sang him The Barney song." 

We missed getting injured by seconds

Bruce Davis, the news director at KRBI in St. Peter at the time, fought back tears as he looked around the room and saw so many people who were just kids when the tornado hit.

Davis was obligated to go the radio station when severe weather was imminent, and not 10 minutes after he got there on that day in 1998, the tornado hit.

"I think we missed getting injured by seconds," Davis said. "Things started crashing as soon as we hit the stairway. We felt the pressure drop, and boy, that was something different."

Davis spent the next few days waking up early, starting a generator and updating the public over the air thanks to a hand-made antenna that was just powerful enough to keep broadcasting.

'How's the garage? There is no garage.'

"When it's all over, we walk back up the stairs and there's glass laying all over, things that flew in, all the dirty insulation stuck to everything," Tuff Miller said. "My wife is just walking around crunching through the glass."

"I walked into the den and looked out the window towards the garage and she yells, 'how's the garage?' I said, 'there is no garage.'"

As an employee for the City of St. Peter at the time, Miller was back to work two days after the storm helping people pick up their lives.

"Some of it was humorous, some of it was heartbreaking. People would just tell you about something they wanted you to do for them and then they would just break down when they told you about something they'd lost." 

It could've been worse

As bad as it was, it could've been worse had students been in session. Fortunately, Gustavus Adolphus was on spring break. 

Every building at the college was damaged and 80 percent of its windows were broken. 

Lisa Heldke, a professor at the college, was in Boston when the tornado hit but found out about the severity of the damage from a friend on the phone who said, "Lisa, the college is gone."

"I wouldn't wish a natural disaster on anyone, but I feel honored to have been able to be present to people who thought their life was over, who lost everything, who didn't know where they were going to live next," Heldke said. 

In the days that followed the twisters, it snowed in southern Minnesota, making the cleanup effort even more difficult, according to the NWS. 

Thank you to Tell Me A Story for sharing their event. Their next event is at the Arts Center of St. Peter on May 3rd at 7:30 p.m. The theme is "The Mother Puzzle" to celebrate Mother's Day. More on their group right here

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