Mile Wide Tornado Kills One, Hurts 13 In N. Colorado

Gov. Ritter Visits Destruction, Says State Will Move On

A large tornado bounced through several northern Colorado towns on Thursday, killing at least one person, damaging or destroying dozens of homes and flipping over tractor-trailers and freight rail cars.

The Weld County Coroner said Oscar "Mike" Manchester died in his RV when the tornado passed through Greeley.

Manchester, 52, had been living in an RV in the Greeley area for a number of years, the coroner said.

Dazed residents retrieved what they could from their homes in Windsor, a town of 16,000 about 70 miles north of Denver that was hardest hit. Power crews removed downed lines and poles from streets and bulldozers cleared debris.

"I didn't want to see this. That's for sure," said Alexander Martinez, 41, gazing at a staircase, balcony, television and couch from his apartment that ended up in his front yard in an east Windsor neighborhood. The roof and a front wall were gone.

"It passed right over us like a big, white monster," said Thomas Coupe, 87, of Windsor.

Gov. Bill Ritter declared a state of emergency for Weld County, mobilizing the Colorado National Guard to assist with disaster response.

Hundreds of homes and buildings were heavily damaged or destroyed -- mostly in Windsor, a farm town of about 16,000. The town was undergoing mandatory evacuation at 4 p.m. A police officer said the evacuation was ordered because of the danger of natural gas leaks from the many damaged buildings.

"We have every type of injury, broken bones, cuts, bruises, from everything from falling trees to broken glass hitting them," said Jolene Schneider, spokeswoman for the Windsor Fire Department. "Only thing we are trying to figure out now is how many and how severe."

Earth-movers rolled into damaged sections of Windsor to clear debris and utility crews worked to repair downed lines and poles. Residents surveyed damage to their homes; in some areas, one house remained intact while another was demolished.

"I didn't want to see this. That's for sure," said Alexander Martinez, 41, gazing at a staircase, balcony, television and couch from his apartment that ended up in his front yard in an east Windsor neighborhood. The roof and a front wall were gone.

According to Weld County Coroner's Office, the death was reported near the Missile Silo Campground near Colo. 257 near 10th Street in West Greeley.

Pete Ambrose, the caretaker at the campground, said the man was in a recreational vehicle that was destroyed by the storm. Two other people camping at the park "got beat up, but they were still OK," said Ambrose, who took shelter in a concrete-block restroom.

"My house is gone," said Ambrose. "I lost my dog. I lost my cats. I lost my camper. I lost everything."

The Windmill Child Enhancement Center in Windsor was hit by a tornado but the 100 children inside were reported to be OK. Video from the scene showed extensive damage to the center and to vehicles parked outside.

The tornado damaged three buildings at a State Farm Insurance operations center on Greeley's west side where about 1,200 people were working, but no one was hurt, company spokeswoman May Martinez-Hendershot said. "They were all able to get down into a safe center and we had no injuries," she said.

Loree Wilkinson, 39, said her children, ages 6 and 9, were playing with hail outside their home until the hail got bigger. She rushed them into the basement.

Wilkinson said her youngest child, Kazden, prayed: "Please don't let me die because I just graduated from kindergarten."

Richard Dykstra, 65, was in his Windsor pest-control office with six other people when it began to hail and the roof began to slide off the building. "We had about 90 seconds, but we managed to get into the basement," Dykstra said.

He said he then ran to a day care center where his grandson was. No children were hurt, and they were herded into a vault at a nearby bank until the storm system cleared.

Golf ball-size hail started falling at The Universal Forest Products Lumber Yard when controller Mark Duncan hurried employees into the basement. "It just hit without warning," he said.

For 10 minutes, said forklift operator Edgar Celedon, 26, the workers heard tin and metal crashing and windows breaking. They dodged falling lights and insulation flying around inside the basement.

The plant's manager took cover in a ditch next to rail tracks across the street -- and narrowly escaped injury when the storm blew freight cars over, Duncan said.

The tornado overturned 15 railroad cars and destroyed a lumber car on the Great Western Railway of Colorado, said Mike Ogburn, managing director of Denver-based Omnitrax Inc., which manages the railroad. Fourteen of the overturned cars were tankers but they were empty.

Xcel Energy spokesman Mark Stutz said about 60,000 customers from around Fort Lupton north to the Wyoming line lost power when the storm hit. Power was restored to all but roughly 15,000 customers by mid-afternoon. Stutz said the electricity likely wouldn't be turned back on for about 9,000 customers until Friday at the earliest because transmission lines had to be rebuilt.

The Weld County Sheriff's Department was providing citizens with updates and alerts via its Web site.

Berthoud resident Steve Davis was driving into Windsor when the tornado hit.

He told 7NEWS, "The clouds turned dark. It started raining very hard the wind started blowing. I pulled the car over to get some shelter."

Davis said, "Radio and TV gas us some advanced warning."

When asked what he saw after the storm Davis told 7NEWS, "You've heard it before, but it looked like a bomb went off. Trees down, power lines down and roofs blown off."

"There are a lot of residents walking around (in the Cornerstone sub-division in Windsor). It looks like they’re in complete shock," he said.

"People walking by me, crying. It’s a sad sight."

The livestock barn at the Brown Cow Dairy near Windsor collapsed, trapping cattle inside and workers could be seen trying to rescue the cows from under the debris. At least 25 cows died in the building.

"Cows were running everywhere," said Rick Hertzke, the owner of the dairy. "(Dairy employees) went to their homes and got into their basements."

Most of the homes were heavily damaged.

Hertzke called the damage "devastating."

“It was kind of scary being that close to it. The hail was pretty big," said Linda Halvorson in Ft. Collins.

U.S. Search and Rescue crews were requested and were being sent to Windsor to help look for anyone trapped.

Shelters Open

7NEWS Blog: Victims Assistance

A shelter was open at the Valley High School gym in Gilcrest and two shelters were open in Greeley: 651 10th Ave. and 1501 65th Ave. Another shelter was opening in Windsor.

At 12:24 p.m., National Weather Service Doppler radar indicated a severe thunderstorm capable of producing a tornado. The storm was located 2 miles southeast of Waverly, or 11 miles north of Fort Collins. This storm was moving northwest at 36 mph.

Watch our live NEXRAD radar feed.

The original tornado was first reported at about 11:30 a.m. Thursday.

Weld County officials closed Highway 85 at Highway 60 after two semi-trailers were blown over at that location. The truck drivers were not believed to be seriously injured.

As many as 60,000 customers were without electrical power in Greeley and other communities in the area.

A city employee in the small town of Windsor said buildings were damaged, trees were down and electricity was knocked out there, but it wasn't immediately clear if the tornado had hit the town directly. Firefighters said a funnel passed directly over the top of the fire station but they weren't sure if it touched down. Communications were difficult because phone lines were down.

Some of the hail from the initial storm cell was the size of tennis balls and dented vehicles, and broke windshields.

Residents in Larimer and Weld counties were advised to take shelter until the storm system passed. By 4:30 p.m., the extent of destruction was becoming clear. Several reporters who have covered Colorado news for the past 20 years said it was the most devastating they have ever seen from a Colorado storm.

In the devastated neighborhood of Cornerstone in Windsor, residents went through an incredibel roller coaster of emotions.

The Grants saw their house was still standing so they knew they could at least try to grab something before Greeley and Loveland SWAT officers told them to evacuate for the night.

But Cindy Grant was aksed how she chose the items in her rolling suitcase?

"My daughter's baby pictures and clothes. It's hard to know what to take and not to..(sobs)" Grant said.

In central Windsor, downed trees were the biggest problem.

The entrance to Town Hall was blocked by a 95 foot spruce, snapped in half.

A town employee tells 7News it was built 100 years ago in 1908 and it did manage to make it through without major structural damage.

A later added third level did sustain roof damage.

One man was saved while driving by the woman in the car ahead of him.

She stopped just as a power polce came down towards him.

"Instead of hitting the cab it fell over the back end of the truck," said Terry Bird.

Crews from Loveland, Ft. Collins and other front range cities arrived with equipment, without any requests, to help chop and remove those downed trees.

Their progress was impressive as most steets were clear by 11 pm.

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