Veldkamps caught and worked in Albany tornado

This article submitted by Cheryl Veldkamp on 5/26/98.

May 15 didn't seem like an unlikely date for a wagon train.

The Stearns County Sheriffâs Mounted Reserve started early at the Albany Pioneer Grounds to set up for the third annual wagon train, a fund raiser for the Sheriff's Youth Home.

With two previous wagon trains under our belts, it looked like this one would be even more organized than the last. Mounted reserve members started arriving at the field across from the Pioneer Grounds early in the day to get set up for the influx of riders, buggies, wagons and spectators. The Pioneer Grounds were inundated with flea market vendors and committee members getting ready for the big flea market and swap meet on Saturday.

There had been severe thunderstorm warnings out all day. It rained off and on, but there was no indication that anything really bad was on the way. Arnie and Cheryl Veldkamp, Paynesville, members of the Stearns County Mounted Patrol, weren't able to get to cover. "By the time we heard the warnings, we could see it coming down over the church steeple and dropping into the flea market area. It was forming as it dropped over the church and we could see it swirling and starting to pick up debris from the ground. It was headed straight for us and we knew we were in serious trouble. There was nothing to do but lay down on the floor of our motorhome and cover up. We saw a picnic table, branches and pieces of steel flying over us through the windows.

ãWhen we got up off the floor and saw Violet Pramannâs 24-foot stock trailer moved 60 feet closer to us and on its side, we knew it was bad. On the other side, Jim Stueveâs camping trailer was upside down, just 10 feet from us and Ann Reemâs big motorhome was on its side about 100 feet to the north. That's about all the assessment we took before we went flying out of the door to check for injuries. Arnie went south and I went north hoping we wouldnât find any people in trouble. Thank goodness, we didn't. All of the horse encampment was able to get to a drainage ditch for cover and ride the storm out," Cheryl said.

Twenty-seven people in the horse area took cover in a drainage ditch. One of the groups had a tree two feet in diameter break off and lay down over the top of them. It probably protected them from the pickup topper, steel, and camper trailer that were butted up to the tree when the tornado was gone.

As soon as everyone on the north side of the road was accounted for, the group headed enmass for the Pioneer Grounds to start rescue operations there. The flea market area was hit big time. People were crawling out of piles of rubble that once were 20 to 30-foot campers and motorhomes. The motorhomes were intact, just tipped or smashed, but the camper trailers and fifth wheel trailers were just a frame and a pile of rubble. Red Cross estimates some 30 people were treated at the church basement where a first aid station was set up. I know there were some minor injuries that never got that far.

Cooperation between groups was great. There must have been at least 10 emergency crews show up besides the Stearns County Mounted Patrol and everyone worked together.

The only motorhome or camper still in livable condition on the other side of the road was theour motorhome. We stayed to watch over the damaged vehicles and equipment in the horse area for the night. At dawn, we were in uniform and in the saddle to help with crowd and traffic control. The horses had stood outside through a tornado and let us know they werenât happy with the whole situation, but they soon settled down to the routine and did a good job even when steel and wood would flop around in the high winds. By early morning, vendors and volunteers and more mounted reserve members were on hand to help with cleanup operations.

The unit was mainly on duty at gates to stop and direct personnel and on horseback to control traffic and keep spectators moving. All of the members of the mounted reserve that werenât on horseback were busy with gate patrol chipping in with cleanup operations.

Five horses were loose after the storm. Three from the Pramann trailer and two that were cut loose before it hit. Two of the horses had injuries.All of the other horses appeared to have escaped unharmed from the storm.

The Stearns County Mounted Reserve is planning to have their Wagon Train for Youth in June. We hated to give up our annual fund raiser for the youth, so we have it rescheduled for June 26 to 28 at the Pioneer Grounds. We had never thought we would need a rain date, let alone a tornado date.

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