WATFORD CITY — A 6-day-old infant was killed when an EF-2 tornado ripped through a Watford City RV park Tuesday morning.
The tornado, with winds as strong as 127 mph, hit the Prairie View RV park, causing 27 injuries and killing the child.
Nine people were critically injured and four of those were “extremely critical,” according to Lt. Matthew Watkins of the McKenzie County Sheriff’s Office. Three people were flown out via air ambulance, and one, who was too injured to wait for a flight, was taken by ambulance to Bismarck and has since been transferred to Fargo, according to Watkins.
At a briefing Tuesday evening, McKenzie County Sheriff Gary Schwartzenberger confirmed that the infant had died. A sheriff’s deputy performed first aid to the child, who was then flown to Bismarck.
“My deepest condolences to the family,” Schwartzenberger said.
Calls started coming in around 12:45 a.m. Tuesday.
“The devastation was apparent just from the entrance,” Watkins said. “It wasn’t an isolated area (of the park).”
A preliminary assessment from the McKenzie County Sheriff’s Office listed 122 trailers, outbuildings and mobile homes as destroyed, while 79 sustained moderate to severe damage. A further 122 were slightly damaged but still habitable.
Anthony Vinson was in his trailer when the storm hit. When he saw the storm coming, he was frozen, holding onto the walls for support as the winds buffeted his home.
“I didn’t know what to do,” he said.
The tornado knocked over a nearby trailer, then swept around his, leaving it in place. After it passed by, he ran out and tried to help other people.
“You try to do what you can do,” he said.
Vinson’s cat ran out of the trailer just as the storm started, but when he returned to the RV park later Tuesday, it came up to him.
“He seen me and he shot straight to me,” he said.
Haven Price and Zacharin Wiler were steps ahead of the storm when they were evacuating.
Price said they went to warn neighbors to evacuate.
“I told them, ‘Something serious is fixin’ to happen,” she said.
Wiler said the wind nearly knocked him over as he was trying to get to the car.
“I couldn’t even walk,” he said.
Price, Wiler and some others tried to get into a nearby grocery store, but because the power was out, the sliding doors wouldn’t open. They tried to pry open the doors, and eventually someone else was able to open another door.
Price said she didn’t realize how bad it was until she heard the police, fire trucks and ambulances speeding past on their way to the park.
Price said her home wasn’t damaged in the tornado, but because of another severe thunderstorm warning for Tuesday night, no one was going to be allowed to stay in the RV park Tuesday evening.
Police and emergency personnel made several searches of the park to find anyone who might have been injured, Watkins said. On Tuesday morning, about 137 residents of the RV park went to the Rough Rider Center. A total of about 250 people were displaced by the storm.
Late in the morning, the scene was one of nearly total destruction. What had been homes for hundreds of people 12 hours earlier lay in ruins throughout the park.
Camper trailers of various sizes were on their sides or their roofs, while others had been entirely destroyed, leaving only the wheeled base behind. Utility hookup posts were bent or torn entirely out of the ground, leaving long strands of wire in their wake.
Debris lay everywhere on the ground — the metal cooktops from stoves, parts of air conditioners, sinks, toilets, insulation, glass from windows, wood from the trailers’ framed walls.
Apart from a few emergency personnel examining leaking propane tanks and preventing residents from returning to the site until it was declared safe, the park was deserted. One of the few sounds was a carbon monoxide alarm blaring from inside a damaged trailer.
“Testing,” the computerized voice said, followed by a series of beeps and then the voice again. “Monitor error. Please see manual.”
Jean Gambell, who lives at Prairie View and recently started working at the RV park, said the two-bedroom modular home she lived in was undamaged, but that, as she was leaving, she saw modular homes near hers that were heavily damaged and fifth-wheel trailers that had been tipped on their sides.
“It started and tore through the park,” she said.
While she was aware there were storms in the area, the storm Tuesday morning started without much warning.
“I don’t even know if the sirens went off,” she said.
The Red Cross has set up an emergency shelter for those who have lost their homes in the storm. The shelter is at 213 Second St. NE in Watford City.
Red Cross staff and volunteers were in Watford City early Tuesday morning, according to Gretchen Hjelmstad, regional communications officer and marketing director for the Red Cross Dakota Region. The organization is working to get other response vehicles and volunteers to the scene to help support the shelter, as well.
The Red Cross isn’t accepting donations of food or clothes at the shelter, but people can give financial support online.
Hjelmstad said it wasn’t clear how long the shelter would be in place.
“We’ll be there as long as we’re needed,” she said.
McKenzie County Sheriff’s Office Lt. Watkins said about 100 emergency personnel showed up when he put a call out for mutual aid. In all, 19 agencies were represented, including the Williston police.
“We had a substantial contingent of help show up,” Watkins said.