The aftermath of the 2001 Siren tornado
There is an old optimists saying that “Out of great disasters, miracles can bloom.”
While few miracles can be attributed to last week’s 20th anniversary of the June 18, 2001 F3 tornado that bowled through Burnett County, there are visible stories of recovery, repair and renewal, in spite of the costs, tragedy and the casualties.
The 2001 F3 twister is assumed to be the most violent storm in recent times, but it was far from being the first such serious weather event or even the first major tornado to wreak havoc locally.
Some long-time residents may recall an even more violent storm occurring on May 21, 1957. That was an even larger, but shorter-lived tornado touched down locally. Before modern ‘Fujita-scale’ references, that 1957 monster was classified as a Category 4 Storm, with likely maximum wind speeds between 207-260 mph. The angry twister blossomed from a day of heavy storms, with a warm front cooking up a tornado that inflicted most of its damage approximately 26 miles outside Webster, seriously injuring two people and causing an estimated $50,000 in damages in 1957 dollars, equal to about $472,000 today. Reliable reports of the damage are rare, due to the rural aspect of the region and technology at the time, but rumors persist of livestock being hurled into trees and farm machinery and outbuildings ‘disappearing’ into the woods.
But it wasn’t just tornadoes, winds or floods that have ravaged and tested the resolve of the region.
Just like the 2001 F3 twister, Siren had near total destruction almost 70 years prior when an unchecked, all-consuming fire started one cold night in February 1932. That blaze took no lives but consumed the little villages’ only hardware store, bakery, grocery store, mechanics garage and even the only pool hall in town, jumping from building to building overnight. Literally half of Main Street was destroyed before the blaze was finally contained or ran out of fuel, as the fire equipment froze to the ground.
Reports said it took over five years to rebuild Siren, which was dramatically different in the wake of the fire, and later was rebuilt into the village locals knew for the next 70-plus years – until June 18, 2001, when the rebuilding process started all over again.
According to the National Weather Service (NWS), a trained spotter first noted a touchdown of the F3 twister at 8:06 p.m., about 13 miles west-northwest of Siren, on the way through Alpha and Falun, eastbound, with an estimated wind speed of 150-200-mph when it struck the west end of Siren, decimating a six-block area of the village and continuing eastbound toward Washburn County, finally fading away into a patch of purplish clouds shortly after 9 pm, approximately three miles west of Spooner.
The NWS has the twister on the ground for approximately 69 minutes, impaling the landscape with winds, hail, rain and debris for a 41-mile stretch, between a quarter to a half-mile-wide the whole way.
Up to 60,000-acres of land were affected; 175 buildings were destroyed or lost, 177 had major damage and 198 structures saw at least minor damage, as well.
Three souls were lost: Thomas Haseltine, Ruth Schultz and Sylvan Stellrecht. Their stories are sad, complicated and arguably quite heroic.
Ruth Schultz, 80, was no stranger to bad weather at her rural Town of Dewey home, and she took it seriously. Just before the storm, she had been playing cards with her husband, Ray, when their police scanner went wild with initial word of the storm. She had nearly made it to shelter when the twister struck with its full fury.
Ruth was “tossed like a doll” across her yard as the twister leveled her home, hurling debris from her kitchen and restroom on top of her.
Her son, Lenny, found her trapped beneath the rubble, fighting for her life.
“Don’t die, Mom!” Lenny begged her, with the trapped woman assuring her 53-year-old son with her final words.
“I won’t!” she insisted, moments before she breathed her last, succumbing to blunt force trauma but fighting until the end.
At first accounts after the storm, Sylvan Stellrecht’s story was a bit of mystery, as he was alone when the twister struck his home on Spaulding Road in the Town of Dewey, east of Siren.
Noted as a “decent, hard-working and honest man” by his family, the 77-year-old had been working with his son earlier that day, cutting down several trees that were near the family home. Ironically, Sylvan was concerned that those trees could damage his home if bad weather struck.
Just an hour or so prior to the F3, he had dinner with his son, Ronald, and wife, Shirley. Those two then left for Shell Lake, leaving Sylvan alone. Shirley had heard the storm was bearing down on their area when she arrived at a relative’s home, calling Sylvan to warn him.
“I’ll be fine,” he told her.
Nobody really knows the circumstances after that or where he was when the F3 hit, but he was discovered several hundred yards from the remnants of his home near a pond, a victim of blunt force trauma to the head and neck, according to the Burnett County Medical Examiner.
Sylvan had two Chihuahuas that he loved, and one of them had also died in the storm. The other tiny dog was found near the same pond, patiently sitting beside Sylvan’s body, waiting for its owner to wake up.
Along with his wife, Carol, Thomas Haseltine, 60, was the co-owner and operator of the Scenic View Campground on Poquette Lake, just off State Highway 70 in far eastern Burnett County Tom and Carol had heeded the warnings of the storm and made sure all the campers were safe before they sought their own place to weather the bad weather.
Coming out into the post-twister scene, they saw a chaotic, jumbled mess of trees and debris. While the campground property was hit hard, Haseltine worried more about his brother’s home across Poquette Lake, which he couldn’t see anymore, making him think the worst.
According to accounts of that day, Haseltine quickly dug out his ATV and sped off into the chaos, crawling over and through the spaghetti fabric of trees, branches and camping debris, looking for a way to snake through the mess.
He was on his ATV, rushing to his brother’s home, when he struck a downed powerline, knocking him several dozen feet off the machine and killing him instantly.
He would be the final victim of the storm, but his bravery is just another example of how the great disaster created many heroes.
Along the 41-mile stretch of F3 destruction, over 500 buildings were either razed, rebuilt or required major repairs. Dozens of businesses were nearly lost for months or forever, their jobs also disappearing with them. Almost all the trees in the path were either downed or damaged.
Horses, cows, chickens, dogs, cats and other animals were also victims. Many farmers of all types lost nearly everything, with several veterinarians noting that while dozens of head of livestock were killed, hundreds more survived with serious injuries, affecting their value and livelihood.
One woman in Siren lost several cats and never found them in the destruction, assuming they were consumed by the storm.
Dr. Carol Weyland was working at the Grantsburg Animal Hospital that night and assisted in the effort to treat many animals, including having to treat quite a few horses that had severe cuts and abrasions.
“Mostly from barns falling on them,” Dr. Weyland stated. “Several cows had to be shot, and several horses had to be put to sleep, their injuries were just too severe.”
One sad story included a farmer who lost several horses, his pet dog and then discovered several injured cows stumbling across his property, including one that had been impaled by a tree branch “shot through its side,” but still able to elude his efforts to chase it down and put it out of its misery. A young farm hand was finally able to use an ATV to get beside the poor bovine and shoot it in the head.
Hundreds of homes and seasonal lake cabins were uninhabitable for months or even years, as contractors and materials were in short supply.
As with any major disaster, there were legitimate concerns of rip-off artists and carpetbagging scammers, but those stories are few and far between.
In general, people were patient and remarkably adept at finding ways to either rebuild or start over.
Siren Police Chief Dean Roland estimated that half of the 400 or so homes in the village had sustained damage and were uninhabitable for weeks, at least. He believed three-quarters of the buildings in Siren were destroyed, but he always seemed to look for the bright pebble in the field of dull rock:
“But we have four churches in town, and all four sustained very minor damage,” Roland said later.
But the signs of hope were everywhere for years, as the region embarked on tree plantings by the thousands, with continued donations and fundraisers trying to make life ‘normal’ or as close to it as possible for years to come.
Among the fundraising items that sold out were T-shirts emblazoned with the phrase “Siren is still a great place to live. Thank God we’re alive.”
The ten-year anniversary of the 2001 F3 twister in June 2011 included a special program at the Siren High School gymnasium called ‘A Thanksgiving Service.’ It included prayers by St. Croix Tribal leaders, special piano music and hymns of hope and stories of recovery, ending with a ceremonial procession to the park, and later a relay of local officials and others who followed the entire 41-mile tornado route, noting ‘Ten Years of Recovery.’
That recovery is ongoing and the F3’s impacts live on, good and bad.
In a recent recognition of the event, the Siren High class of 2020 was notably born around the time of the F3 tornado, and were treated to a variety of special and traumatic events along the way, which they commemorated at their pandemic-limited graduation at Crooked Lake Park last summer.
They graduated at the pavilion in the shadow of a large painted mural, illustrating a ‘tornado’ of tests for their class, from the 2001 F3 to the attacks of 9/11, a fire at their school gymnasium where dozens had lived after that tornado and even the recent Covid-19 challenges.
The students proudly called themselves ‘The Tornado Babies,’ as proof that out of great disasters, miracles really can bloom.