Tornado Rips Through Small Colorado Town, Killing Woman

10 Others In Holly Injured

A tornado up to 600-feet wide tore through the small southeast Colorado town of Holly late Wednesday evening, killing one woman and injuring 10 others.

The twister threw 29-year-old Rosemary Rosales into a tree. She died of massive injuries, Prowers County Coroner Joe Giadone said Thursday.

Rosales and 10 others were initially transported to Prowers Medical Center in Lamar. She and six others were then airlifted to high level trauma centers in Denver, Colorado Springs and Pueblo.

Trauma surgeons at Memorial Medical Center in Colorado Springs worked on Rosales for more than four hours trying to save her. Dr. Andrew Berson said Rosales' injuries were just too severe to overcome. She had massive injuries to her chest and abdomen.

After multiple operations, surgeons were able to stablize Rosales and move her to a room in the hospital's ICU. Rosales died with her family at her bedside, according to Berson. She died six hours after arriving at Memorial Central.

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Hers is the first tornado-related death in Colorado since June 27, 1960, 7NEWS reported.

Rosales was transported to Memorial Hospital with her husband, Gustavo Puga, and their 3-year-old daughter, Noelia.

Her family said that when they heard the tornado roaring through, Gustavo grabbed the little girl and hugged her to his body and grabbed a hold of Rosales' hand. The twister swept through, blew their house off its foundation, picked them up and threw all of them in the air.

Rosemary Rosales is pictured with her son, husband and daughter.

"He (Gustavo) tried to hold on to both of them and he couldn't," said Gustavo's brother, Oscar Puga.

"All three victims who were brought here were found in a tree," said Berson.

Puga is in stable condition and is responsive and alert, doctors say. The 3-year-old girl suffered minor injuries because she was held in her father's tight embrace the entire time, her family said. The little girl is expected to make a full physical recovery, according to doctors.

Her family said Rosales will be missed.

"Rosemary was all about her family. She always took care of her kids. She always took care of her husband. That was always her main priority," said the victim's teary-eyed aunt, Victoria Rosales.

The couple also has a 7-year-old son who was with his grandmother about a block away. The grandmother heard the tornado, grabbed the boy and both hid in a closet. They were unhurt.

Huge Twister Spotted Heading Toward Town

The twister touched down south of town around 8 p.m. Wednesday. At 8:11 p.m., the National Weather Service in Pueblo reported that people were seeing a large tornado near the cemetery.

"I looked out the back porch, and I called Syracuse Police Department, 911, and I said, 'Are there any tornadoes around because I got one in my back yard that's bigger than God,'" John Hughes told 7NEWS.

"And they came out there and they took some video of it. And I came back in time and this was what I found," Hughes said, gesturing to his damaged home. "And if you go up to the north side of town, there are houses missing -- completely -- just foundations."

At least 60 homes were damaged and at least five were destroyed by the tornado, according to Linda Fairbairn, an administrator for Prowers County.

"Homes were there and now they're gone," Fairbairn said. "Many, if not all, the structures in town suffered some degree of damage."

The streets in the small town are littered with power lines, tree limbs and other debris. Holly has about 1,000 residents and is 235 miles southeast of Denver and about 150 miles east of Pueblo. It is located along U.S. Highway 50 and the Arkansas River in extreme eastern Prowers County, about six miles from the Kansas State line.

The strength of the tornado has not been determined. It cut a two-mile path of damage through the town.

"It skimmed a mile to a 1 1/2 miles north through town, barely missing the Main Street business district, but knocking down power lines and causing several gas leaks," said Chris Sorensen, a spokesman for Prowers County emergency management.

Holly Residents Say They Had No Warning

The brother-in-law of the victim said that the family didn't know that a tornado was even nearby. The family was in the living room when they were sucked out of their home.

"They didn't expect it. They didn't even have a chance to let off the siren," said Oscar Puga, Gustavo Puga's brother.

Puga said that the family lived near railroad tracks and they thought that the sound they heard was a train having some problems.

"The baby was sleeping in the front room. All they heard was this big ugly noise, and they didn't have no time to run," said Victoria Rosales.

Judy Salgado was in her home when the twister knocked her home off its foundations.

"When it got stronger, I felt the house get lifted up. And it lifted it up, moved it, and then it went back down to the ground," said Salgado, pointing to her home, which was shifted about 5 feet. "I touched my husband. And that's when we grabbed each other. I told him, 'Don't let go of me.' And that's when I felt the house lift up."

"It came in so fast," her husband, Victor Salgado, said.

Connie Vocke, a Holly resident, told Colorado Springs station KRDO-TV she was playing bridge and had no idea what was coming.

"We didn't see anything, it was dark by the time it hit," Vocke told the station. "We just heard it and it was just like a big train coming."

"We're very lucky we're alive. From my house west, it got people's homes -- well everything -- it got everything," she told the station. "(It's) complete chaos. Huge trees laying down everywhere, power lines are everywhere, limbs are everywhere."

The National Weather Service had issued a tornado warning at 8:02 p.m., and the twister was spotted nine minutes later, the weather service said.

However, emergency response officials said the community was hit without warning, and that tornado sirens never sounded.

Holly is located on the fringe of weather radar systems, and the distance between radar facilities and the community may have limited the ability of weather officials to detect the storm, Fairbairn.

Search and rescue crews went door to door through the night to make sure that everyone was accounted for and that anyone who was hurt has gotten help.

"Rescue workers searched through the wreckage of homes and buildings during the night, but those efforts were difficult because the entire community was without electrical power through the night and access to much of the community was extremely difficult because of widespread debris and downed trees and tree limbs," Fairburne said.

Highway 50 was closed by the tornado due to downed power lines and debris, but is now open to one lane of traffic and response crews as the process of cleaning up begins. An eastbound Amtrak train on the ATSF Railway was also halted just east of Lamar last night for several hours until emergency workers could assess the condition of the tracks.

Tornado Season Already?

Holly's tornado was one of more than 50 tornadoes that touched down in a severe weather outbreak from Texas to Nebraska. A couple in Oklahoma was killed when their home was blown to pieces.

Tornadoes have been reported nine months of the year in Colorado, and the peak season for tornadoes extends from mid-May through mid-August. June is by far the month with the most recorded tornadoes, 24/7 Meteorologists said.

Tornadoes have occurred at every time of the day, with over half of them developing between 3 p.m. and 6 p.m., and 88 percent occurring between 1 p.m. and 9 p.m., Mountain Standard Time. They also occur statewide, but by far the largest number develop in eastern Colorado to the east of Interstate 25.

Since 1950, the two counties with the most tornadoes have been Weld and Adams. In fact, Weld County has one of the highest frequencies of tornadoes in the country. It's mainly due to the size of the county. Weld is two to three times the size of most counties in the nation.

The last tornado death in Colorado occurred on June 27, 1960 in Sedgwick County. The most well- known tornado outbreak occurred in metro Denver on June 15, 1988.

Town Pitches In To Help Out

Residents and crews began clearing away at daybreak Thursday, said Chris Sorensen, a spokesman for the emergency response team.

"I'm seeing the residents pitch in together to start the cleanup already. They're getting together and being a community," he said.

Townspeople said that's what farmers do -- pull out their tractors and heavy equipment to help neighbors clearing debris from their homes.

A southeastern Colorado rancher who lost at least 35 head of cattle to the tornado said, "It just looks like a bomb went off."

Bill Lowe said he had about 800 cattle in his feedlot when the tornado hit. Now, besides the 35 dead, others are so badly hurt that they'll have to be shot.

Lowe said it's better than letting them suffer.

Just three months ago, back-to-back blizzards and subzero temperatures killed about 250 of his cattle, Lowe said. Across the southeastern corner of the state, the December blizzards killed 10,000 to 15,000 head of livestock, officials said.

"It's just too much," Lowe said. "We're all in the same boat. You ought to see the town."

Lamar Daily News editor Mary Breslin toured Holly and it was strange how the tornado had spared one home with a manicured lawn -- but devastated another home next door.

State, Federal Officials Assess Damage

Gov. Bill Ritter toured the damaged area Thursday afternoon.

"There's a swath of devastation," said Ritter. "Obviously, this is terribly devastating. We will do everything we can to help the people in this town."

But despite the widespread damage, he's surprised by the resilience and can-do attitude of the community.

"They were just getting back on their feet from the blizzards in January and they were hit by this. What's really amazing is that the people, they were grateful that we were here. We did not hear people complain. People did not express concerns about what was and was not being done ... They just pulled up their sleeves and got to work. These are really hardy souls," Ritter said. "We were really impressed by how resilient people seem after the disaster."

He said he was also impressed by the number of volunteers who came from surrounding counties and Kansas.

"There's an amazing number of volunteers helping to clean this up. It's an amazing testament to people," Ritter said.

FEMA is sending a four-member team to tour the area with Colorado State ifficials to do an assessment on the damage. The team will help FEMA decide whether or not to declare a federal disaster, which would render federal money and assistance. Officials will be evaluating what level, if any, state or federal assistance should be requested.

The Red Cross has set up an emergency shelter at the Holly School to provide housing for families displaced by the storm, and to provide an emergency food supply for residents. But since most of those displaced by the twister are seeking shelter with family and friends, the Red Cross is focusing on delivering emergency supplies and partnering with the Salvation Army to provide food.

Lamar Light and Power are working to restore electrical power to the town, and has set up portable generation to provide emergency power for critical services, including the local nursing home and to provide water to the community.

However, residents are told not to drink the water, as a precaution. The water is being tested to see if it's safe and it takes 24 hours for the results, officials said.

Wal-Mart is bringing in a truckload of bottled water for Holly residents.

The Kansas Department of Transportation and the Army Corp of Engineers are also on scene removing debris, said a spokeswoman with the Colorado Department of Emergency Management.

Former Gov. Roy Romer grew up in Holly and still owns a business there. He was not in town when the tornado hit but has been in contact with friends.

"It just is a heavy, heavy hammer blow to a small community. I lived through this with Limon, when I was governor, and I know how hard this is on a town. But the human tragedy, of course, is the greatest concern," Romer said.

How To Help:

  • Financial donations may be directed to Prowers County, 301 S. Main Street, Suite 215, Lamar, CO 80152. County officials will direct any monetary aid to the community.
  • Adventist Community Services is coordinating donations. They are in need of new, clean underwear and diapers of all sizes. Donations can be dropped off at 5045 W. 1st in Denver. Money, Household goods and clothing are also being accepted.

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