There is a kind of coldness in the calm after a storm. Fifty years ago today indifferent starlight shone on shattered glass and scattered trees as though nothing had happened on the shores of Boulder Lake earlier that night.
But something had happened.
"The cabin was coming apart, and then we were all airborne," recalled Dennis Norrell. "The cabin virtually exploded, and my mother-in-law and sister-in-law were killed immediately."
As a dozen tornadoes struck northern Minnesota on Aug. 6, 1969, one seemed to target the cabin where Norrell, then 30, was staying with his wife, three children and five relatives. Because 100 feet away, another home was relatively unscathed, he said.
From the strongest cyclone over Outing and Roosevelt Lake to smaller twisters on the Iron Range, the storms killed 15 people in all and wounded more than 100. There has not been a deadlier tornado outbreak anywhere in the state since.
While the F3-rated twister traveled east toward Two Harbors and faded into memory, Norrell's recollection of that night is on-demand.
"When I got to the cabin at 6:30 it was raining, straight-down rain, nothing serious and all of a sudden within five minutes the whole thing came apart," he said. "Sheets of plywood were flying out of the pickup like paper — I had no clue it was a tornado but looked back and told everybody, 'Stay away from the windows.'"
When it was over the cabin was gone and Norrell was outside. First he found Avis Hietala and Ellen Hietala. Neither had survived.
"I was zero for everything and suddenly found a bunch of the kids were in a pile," he said. "My daughter had a serious brain injury," the effects of which are painfully evident today.
He vividly recalls the waves crashing around a pontoon and the rescuers from the St. Louis County Sheriff's Office steadying it in the water.
"Fifty years I've never forgotten them or their campaign," Norrell said, choking up.
Amid the tragedy, he thinks, too, of the serendipity of the hours following the tornado: A doctor was the first to arrive on scene, and workers from a local tree service had stopped nearby for lunch and were able to quickly cut through the wreckage and reopen the road.
Today he and his family pay close attention to the bounty of information available on approaching weather. Even if he had heard of a tornado forming as he drove toward the cabin and his family that night, Norrell said there wasn't much else he could have done.
"It was like a sitting duck on the hillside on Boulder Lake. I have no idea where we would have gone."