Ellison Hayenga had just finished showing co-worker Kari Lucin and me the damage a tornado caused to a rural Sibley farmsite Saturday afternoon, when he was reminded by an Osceola County Sheriff’s Deputy the county was once again under a tornado watch.
Hayenga already knew a watch had been issued, and he didn’t need the National Weather Service to tell him. After more than three decades on the Sibley Fire Department, during which he has taken just about every storm spotter training that’s been offered, Hayenga has a sense for these things. Saturday’s steamy conditions and hazy sky served as fair warning.
When Kari and I arrived at the Sibley Fire Hall just before noon on Saturday, it was Hayenga who shared with us stories of the Friday night rescues. He talked of the extrication efforts needed to remove 11 victims from three vehicles that, while shielded from a highway overpass on the south side of town, were picked up by the powerful tornado and tossed about — one landing approximately 50 yards from where its driver sought shelter.
It was Hayenga and another firefighter who showed us the dots on a county map — dots representing farm places that suffered damage from the six confirmed tornadoes that swept across Osceola County.
Ultimately, it was also Hayenga who served as our media escort through the hardest hit areas of the countryside.
And that’s where the story of one man’s encounter with Mother Nature begins.
Sibley firefighters were paged at about 9:45 p.m. Friday to perform their dual roles as storm spotters. Hayenga and another guy took the department’s grass rig and headed west of town and, unknowingly, right into the path of the storm.
Said Hayenga, most guys won’t ride with him anymore when it comes to storm spotting. Whether it’s his high level of training, or just unfortunate luck, he seems to end up where the action is.
Friday night was no exception. It was Hayenga and his truckmate that spotted the tornado, then three tornadoes, that descended from the sky southeast of Little Rock. Had it not been for the constant streaks of lightning, they never would have seen them.
“It made it tough with darkness,” he shared. Then, with an uneasy little laugh, he said, “I seem to be chasing or getting chased.”
As Hayenga steered his truck down a gravel road during our guided tour, he slowed a bit to show us just where he first saw the twister appear.
It had been raining so hard Friday night that they had to slow down to about 5 mph for a while.
“We couldn’t see them — we were kind of sensing where they were,” Hayenga said.
Tornadoes are unpredictable. They can change course faster than any human can react, but for a trained spotter like Hayenga, tracking the storm is just part of what he signed on for 31 years ago.
As we journeyed from one damaged farm to another, Hayenga told us that he had called Sibley Fire Chief Ken Huls by 5 o’clock Friday afternoon with an uneasy feeling that something would pop in the county that evening.
“I said, ‘This one is very different,’” he recalled. “I’ve gotten to read the weather more.”
Well, that just begged my next question. Here we were, traveling the back roads of Osceola County over the noon hour on Saturday, already aware that we were in a tornado watch.
“What about today?” I asked. “Are you sensing something will happen again?”
He winced slightly at the question, looked over at me and slowly nodded his head before looking back out the window at the hazy Saturday sky.
That night, as the tornado sirens sounded in Worthington and the TV weatherman reported rotations and sightings just to our south — in Osceola County — I thought of Hayenga. I imagined he was out chasing the storms, running on adrenaline and very little sleep, but still doing his job.
He and the rest of the Sibley Fire Department — as well as the sheriff’s office, ambulance and rescue crews, and the multiple departments who provided mutual aid — deserve many thanks for the work they did this past weekend, and the work they continue to do to protect and serve the public.