Remembering the tornado that ripped through the Refuge
Not many 11 year olds get a letter from their congressman, but Danny Kriesel did in the summer of 1967.
Sixth District Congressman Zach Zwach sent him one to congratulate and commend him on his quick-thinking and heroic actions in saving the life of his sister and himself in a tornado that happened 50 years ago today.
“You never forget it,” Kriesel said in a recent interview with the Star News. “If you saw the picture of the house, you’d see it actually exploded right above us. I thank God every day that we’re here.”
Kriesel, of Glenwood, and his younger sister Darla (Kriesel) Heinert of Twinsburg, Ohio said they will not mark the occasion in any special way, but they will never forget what happened on July 22, 1967.
Memories of the storm were rekindled on March 6 this year when Sherburne and Freeborn counties became home to the state’s earliest tornadoes on record.
Danny was home babysitting his 7-year-old sister, Darla, on July 22, 1967, for his parents, Elmer and Margie Kriesel. They had left for the Buffalo House or Elk Lake Pavilion in Zimmerman after it appeared the storm was letting up. Elmer was to play in the band for a Saturday night dance.
Mom left instructions to stay in the basement of their home located off County Road 1 just south of Little Elk Lake.
Danny and Darla were planning to play a game of pool, but first had eaten some ice cream, when Danny brought the empty bowls upstairs to put them in the sink. That’s when he saw the dark, ominous skies through the windows of the one-story farmhouse. He could tell trees were strewn about in the yard.
“I looked out every window to see if I could see a tornado or something,” Dan recalls. “I couldn’t see anything. It was a solid downpour.”
Spooked, he headed back to the basement door. He had hollered down to his younger sister who met him at the top of the stairs. It took the efforts of both to get the door shut, they recalled.
“I think the suction must have been building up in the house. We both pulled on the door and got it shut,” Dan said.
The two of them, Darla in Danny’s arms according to a Sherburne County Star News account in the July 27, 1967 edition, bolted for a downstairs bedroom where they would wait out the storm. Dan provided coverage for his young sister as they listened in fear. His shoes were pulled off his feet in the ruckus.
“It sounded like someone was upstairs opening our cupboards and they were throwing everything out,” Darla recalled.
“They were just smashing, then the windows exploded,” Dan added.
Darla says it sounded like a freight train then. Dan remembers a roar too, but what stands out to him was the sound of an explosion.
“I never saw the tornado,” he said. “I know a lot of people saw it from a distance. I never did. I wish I did see it, but maybe i’s better if I didn’t.”
Dan’s recollection of any heroics on his part have either faded or more was made of them than he believes should have been, but he hung on to the letter from Congressman Zwach.
“Danny, you did a wonderful thing,” Zwach wrote in a letter dated Aug. 4, 1967. “It makes me proud and happy just to think about it.”
The same tornado killed Elvera Peterson, a 70-year-old Orrock Township woman, who was unable to get downstairs before the tornado hit, according to Franklin Nystrom, her brother who was at the foot of the stairs in the basement when the tornado demolished the home, garage, barn and everything else in sight.
Peterson’s body was found 100 yards east of the house despite most of the wreckage being flung northwest of the home.
Elmer and Margie Kriesel’s home sat on a wooded 200-acre parcel near the Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge. Every building on the site was leveled.
Once Danny crawled out of the basement, he noticed blood he figured was coming from his sister. She appeared untouched.
‘I didn’t have a scratch,” Darla recalled. “It’s remarkable that I wasn’t cut.”
Danny was cut, but not badly. What was swirling in his mind was his new reality. Same with Darla, who at 7 years old was even more bewildered.
“I remember thinking, ‘Is everybody we know gone?’” he recalled. “We were thinking the whole town of Zimmerman was destroyed. We wondered if the two of us were orphans.”
Darla worried the storm would come back, like a monster she was in hiding from in a recurring nightmare.
Peggy (Kriesel) Moon, Dan and Darla’s older sister, thought they were gone and collapsed at the news that they had not immediately been found.
“I remember somebody asking if they found the bodies yet, and I passed out,” Moon said.
She later awoke to her family’s pastor saying they were OK and he would take her to them.
Now, any gathering of the three of them holds special meaning for this family that also lost a home to fire.
“We don’t have a lot of relics,” she said. “So when we get together, we’re just thankful to be together.”
Danny and Darla had been in the southwest corner of the basement, and debris piled on top of them, but had they been in any other room they figure they would be dead.
The thick-slate billiard table that took four men to haul downstairs was sucked out of the home in seconds and some little pieces of it were found in a room next to the one where the Kriesels took cover.
There was a car in the yard that had been picked up and thrown next to a swamp.
“To do that it had to go airborne because all of the trees that would have been in the way,” Dan said. “A propane tank that had been on the side of the home was now on the other side of the remaining foundation of the home.”
Danny and Darla had nightmares for some time afterward, but as the years have passed they think of that fateful storm less and less.
“There are a lot of times I think of it, and there are times I don’t,” Darla said. “But whenever there’s a storm warning and you’re down in a basement you think of it.”
Danny, a truck driver now, says people in Zimmerman still bring it up when he swings through town, and he thought of it a lot this spring after a tornado came through the Zimmerman area on March 6.
It was the main topic when he met his sisters last month at Moon’s home for a quick visit while he was on the road.
“It’s not very often we’re in the same room,” he said.
They appreciate it every time they are, though.