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Several factors helped Oakfield avoid fatalities in '96 twister

Jul. 17, 2013
 
July 18, 1996: The aftermath of the Oakfield, Wis. tornado Gannett Wisconsin Media file photo
July 18, 1996: The aftermath of the Oakfield, Wis. tornado Gannett Wisconsin Media file photo

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A decision to set off Oakfield’s tornado sirens provided six to seven precious minutes of warning that a powerful tornado was about to strike the community.

“During that time in 1996, we were not hooked up with Fond du Lac County for sirens. We had to set our own,” recalled Gary Collien, the fire chief at the time who now serves as village president. “A few years after that, we got hooked up with the radio frequency and now go off with Fond du Lac County.”

Collien remembers telling one of the firefighters to stay at the station “in case we need to set off the sirens.” He couldn’t have foreseen the importance of that decision.

Luck played role

According to Collien, there are several reasons no one died in the F-5 tornado that roared through the village and leveled homes and other buildings in its path on July 18, 1996.

He pointed out that a number of residents were in Fond du Lac attending the Fond du Lac County Fair. There was at least a six-minute warning from the time the sirens went off to the time the tornado reached the village, and there was talk earlier in the day of the potential for severe weather.

Collien said it also helped that the tornado came during the day instead of the middle of the night.

“One other reason is we were probably lucky, too,” he said, noting there were 19 reportable injuries, most coming during cleanup over the 10 days after the tornado.

Tony O’Malley, who was the village president in 1996, said he experienced a turning point about eight years after the tornado.

“Someone said it occurred to them that today is the anniversary of the Oakfield tornado. That was the first time it came and went without me thinking about it,” he said. “I thought, ‘That’s good.’”

O’Malley said the tornado is an “indelible event” in the life history of people who went through it.

Riding the storm out

The funnel emerged from a massive, dark cloud, Collien said. He could see it start to pick up debris.

When the tornado had passed, firefighters attempted to drive into the village, but downed power lines and trees made that impossible.

Collien said firefighters and others responding to the tornado look back now and feel fortunate that no one was killed.

Recalling the night of the tornado, Collien said that his teenage son had been home alone. He had been umpiring a ballgame, but it was stopped due to lightning.

The boy took shelter in the basement and emerged unharmed. He made his way to the fire station to find his dad.

“He had that scared look on his face and told me the house was still there,” Collien recalled.

There was about $30,000 in damage to the Collien home, mostly to windows, siding and the roof. The house was within a block of what is referred to as “Ground Zero” where the tornado took out homes and destroyed virtually everything in its path.

O’Malley remembers how his family rode out the brunt of the tornado in the basement of the family’s home. He laid on top of two of his young children and his wife aws atop the other two.

The storm damaged the house, battered vehicles and pushed over big trees.

“I was gazing at all of this damage and probably my second or third thought was ... I’m the village president,” he remembered. “That means — ultimately — the buck stops with me.”

In the hours after the tornado, O’Malley and a firefighter went door-to-door using wrenches to turn off gas lines that were leaking and broken.

Helpers in time of need

O”Malley said Wednesday that he can never thank people enough for the outpouring of assistance to the village in its time of need. In a letter published in The Reporter in September 1996, he talked of the “heroes” who came to the rescue.

“Thousands of selfless acts and gifts, some big, some small, each important, all adding up to a combined effort which helped save our village’s life,” he said.

Laurie Ritger may be reached at lritger@fdlreporter.com or (920) 907-7925.

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