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SPECIAL REPORT: Remembering the Ryan tornado

An EF-4 tornado that hit Ryan, Iowa on August 12th 1974. (courtesy Brian Oberreuter)

It was a muggy summer day August 12th 1974 when a rare EF-4 tornado slammed through the small farming community of Ryan, Iowa. With winds of 160 mph, the tornado left the town of 350 people shaken and shocked. And for good reason, tornadoes of this magnitude almost never occur in the month of August. The clash of cold and hot air, common in the spring, just isn't there to fuel a storm of this intensity. In fact, there have been only 15 tornadoes in U.S. history during the month of august that have reached this magnitude. That put it in a very special class.

Brian Oberreuter was just a kid when the tornado struck near his family's farm. It was a little after four p.m. when he and his dad saw a line of ominous clouds churning on the horizon. Brian raced inside and grabbed his brand new Kodak 110 camera, a Christmas gift. It was tiny with square bulb flashcubes, but it did the job. These are the only known photos of the tornado taken that day.

One of the special features of Brian's pictures were the multiple vortexes rotating within the tornado. Scientists had long surmised that the strongest tornadoes had these individual circulations embedded within the storm. These miniature tornadoes inside the funnel were responsible for localized but intense areas of destruction. At the time, it was rare to find pictures showing this phenomenon which today is a well-known aspect of powerful tornadoes.

Vince Wood was working that day at the lumberyard in town. He didn't realize a serious storm was approaching. But when he heard the sirens blaring, Vince was out the door. He was a volunteer firefighter he was also sure his town was in the crosshairs.

After the tornado blasted through, Vince raced back to the lumberyard to check on a co-worker who had stayed behind. When he arrived on the scene, Vince was devastated. The lumberyard had been reduced to a pile of splinters. He frantically began searching for his friend. Luckily, he was found, but had a broken pelvis and arm.

The southern half of town was a wasteland. Houses were reduced to rubble and foundations laid bare. Some of the contents from homes were found as far away as Galena, Illinois. The school was destroyed. The Catholic Church gutted. But amazingly, flowers from a recent wedding sat untouched on the church's altar.

After the tornado, the cleanup was long and exhausting. But as small Iowa towns do, they worked hand in hand to restore their community.

The tornado will always be an iconic moment in the town's history Anyone who lived through the storm much like the Kennedy assassination or 9/11, can tell you exactly where they were and what they were doing when the tornado hit. It will never be forgotten and fortunately there are people like Vince and Bryan who have made it possible for this chapter in Ryan’s history to be preserved for generations to come.

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