FARGO — Ray Jensen had been keeping his trained eye on the increasingly ominous western sky for more than an hour when he saw a tornado descend from a wall cloud at the end of a line of thunderstorms.
The tornado was about four miles west of Jensen's office at the National Weather Service at Fargo's Hector Airport. At it emerged, the twister was a sharply pointed black cone that rapidly dropped to the ground.
Once it landed, the tornado quickly became much wider, losing its conical point and whipping a huge swirl of dust and debris. And it was taking "dead aim" on Fargo as it meandered east. It was 7:28 p.m. on June 20, 1957, and Jensen had witnessed the birth of the most devastating tornado to ever strike Fargo.
Jensen immediately put out a bulletin for local television and radio stations, the latest in a series of warnings he'd issued that evening.
As he continued watching the tornado, Jensen saw that it was heading for the Golden Ridge neighborhood in northwest Fargo. Residents in the neighborhood saw the advancing storm heading toward them and many got into their cars to evacuate.
Six of Gerald and Mercedes Munson's seven children were home alone that evening. Their mother was still at work. Neighbors in the Golden Ridge neighborhood urged the Munson children to leave with them, but the children refused to go.
The Munson children were determined to stay home, where they planned a surprise birthday party for their mother, who turned 36 that day. As it happened, Mercedes Munson had asked to get off work early, but the man who was to relieve her was half an hour late.
Frantic because of the approaching storm — the Munson house had no basement — Mercedes Munson was able to reach her 16-year-old daughter on the phone. But then the line abruptly went dead.
Jensen, still tracking the tornado, saw the funnel sweep up debris and fling it from its rotating force, laden with what he described as "discrete particulate matter."
"I could see whole sides of houses being thrown 300 to 400 feet into the air and out-just like when you are twirling something and the string breaks," Jensen wrote years later.
'It was frightening'
The dark supercell storm cloud that spun off the tornado bearing down on Fargo loomed for a long time in the western sky. On radar, it showed up as a mass towering 60,000 feet, with a diameter of 50 miles. Many residents were nervously eyeing the massive black funnel cloud, spiraling with menacing potential.
Many drove out of town, heeding warnings broadcast on radio and television. Dawn Morgan's father called with instructions for the family to drive north to get out of the storm's path. He was E. Vernon Hendrickson, meteorologist in charge, and had gone to join Ray Jensen at the weather service office at Hector.
"He could see the tornado coming straight for us," toward the Hendricksons' home in north Fargo, Morgan said.
As the Hendrickson family drove north on Highway 81 they saw rope tornadoes dancing in fields to the west. They were part of a procession of cars fleeing the storm.
"There was kind of a traffic jam," said Morgan, who was 10 years old at the time. "Somehow it didn't seem scary. We were electrified by the experience. It was exciting."
A similar exodus was underway in south Fargo. "We could see the cloud brewing," said Don Peterson, whose family lived near Lewis and Clark Elementary School on the southern edge of town. To get a better look, Peterson's father drove the family to the school. What the Petersons saw alarmed them, the immense funnel cloud that seemed it would engulf the city.
"It was frightening," said Peterson, who was 6 years old at the time. "I will tell you to this day I still have dreams about tornadoes."
The Petersons drove south of town, on Highway 81, joining a parade in progress. Peterson watched from a safe distance as the funnel cloud thrashed Fargo. He could see showers of sparks as power lines blew down, "like lightning on the ground. It was just eerie."
Unexpectedly, the tornado veered, heading straight for the Golden Ridge neighborhood in northwest Fargo, where the Munson children were home alone.
'The whole area was gone'
Despite the warnings, Tim Larson's father refused to evacuate, even though the home the family rented lacked a basement shelter.
Then Larson's grown sister drove up, and insisted that she would take the children to her home in south Fargo. Finally, Larson's father relented. Everyone home at the time, six or seven family members, piled into Larson's sister's car.
As they drove off, 10-year-old Larson watched through the car's rear window and saw what he described as a "big black volcano" behind them. "It just kept blowing up and spiraling," he said. "It was just huge and dark."
The Larsons made it safely to his sister's home. After the storm passed, they drove back to their rented home in the Golden Ridge neighborhood.
"When we got back, there was nothing left," said Larson, who now lives near Harwood. "That whole area looked like somebody hit it with a granger. It was just chopped to pieces."
The debris of the Larsons' vanished home was indistinguishable from the debris of the other destroyed homes, building remnants mixed with sheared trees and strewn seemingly everywhere.
"It was pretty shocking," Larson said. "The whole area was gone."
A few blocks from where the Larsons' home had been, rescuers sifted through the broken wreckage in search of victims and survivors.
At the Munson house, just a few blocks from the Larsons, the rescuers found tragedy: all six of the children, waiting to surprise their mother with a birthday party, had perished. Days later, their six coffins would be arrayed side-by-side for the funeral.
Years later, during the 50th anniversary of the tornado in 2007, Mercedes Munson-Ericson wrote about the sadness of Christmases and birthdays without the six children she lost.
"God takes the prettiest flowers first," she said.
Tragedy and triumph
More victims, unable to get out of the tornado's path, were found in the storm's aftermath. Ten died that night, but the death toll ultimately reached 12, with some accounts saying the tornado claimed 13 lives.
One-hundred-fifty people were injured, many with broken bones. The influx of injured was so great at St. Luke's Hospital, now Sanford Medical Center, located closest to the devastation, that doctors and nurses had to use the cafeteria as a triage and treatment room. Because the power was out, and the auxiliary generators were not connected to the elevators, victims had to be carried upstairs on stretchers for surgery.
The tornado destroyed 66 city blocks in north Fargo on its 10-mile rampage, leaving a swath of destruction two blocks wide as it weaved its way east, dipping south and then north through town. One high school, two grade schools, four churches and an estimated 1,364 homes were damaged, 329 of them destroyed. Total property damage was estimated at $20 million, $174 million in today's dollars.
Two-thousand people were left homeless.
Amid the staggering tragedy of that night, the capricious winds also granted mercy to some.
One of the most striking examples was that of 7-month-old Jon Davenport, whose family was picnicking at Oak Grove Park when the twister hit. The family was preparing to leave, after police warned of the approaching tornado. But before they could leave, the funnel was upon them.
Trapped, the Davenports sought shelter in a ditch, where Jerry covered their daughter and his wife, LuVerne, clutched Jon. After the tornado passed, she realized she had been hit on the head — and the tornado had torn her infant son from her arms.
Little Jon Davenport was found in a ditch less than a block away, lying face up with a lacerated scalp, but alive. He grew up to become an X-ray technician, married with two children, in Phoenix. He walks with a slight limp.
The F-scale was born
The mammoth supercell that spawned the Fargo tornado was extensively photographed-so thoroughly photographed that a researcher from the University of Chicago was persuaded to study the twister in depth.
That researcher, Tetsuya "Ted" Fujita, became the creator of what was called the Fujita scale, or F-scale, for rating the strength of tornadoes. The scale was partly inspired by the Fargo tornado, which rated F-5, the fiercest magnitude, with maximum wind speeds estimated at 275 mph.
Fujita analyzed approximately 200 photographs-black and white, color, still and moving-as well as weather data compiled by the National Weather Service to reconstruct the tornado and evaluate its strength. Some of the photos were taken by Forum photographers Chet Gebert and Cal Olson; The Forum was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for its tornado coverage.
Fujita determined that the massive supercell spawned five tornadoes, including the one that struck Fargo. Tornadoes touched down earlier near Wheatland and Casselton, and also near Glyndon and Dale. During its intense six-hour life, the supercell generated tornadic activity for four hours.
Years later, scientists calculated that the supercell thunderstorm responsible for the tornado that struck Fargo generated 25 times the energy of an atomic bomb.
Despite the primitive warning system of the time, most people were aware of the threat, Jensen said, in recollections of the tornado written in 2007. The enormous funnel cloud acted as its own warning.
Noting the mass exodus heading north on Highway 81, with cars two-abreast in spots on the two-lane highway, Jensen shudders to think at what might have happened if the tornado took a different path.
"I have often wondered what the casualty number would have been if the tornado had veered from its eastward path and crossed the highway, or assumed a path parallel to the highway," he wrote. "There were no escape exits that I was aware of other than the ditch. It suffices to suggest the casualty figures would have been enormous."