Fifty years after time stood still

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BELMOND — It was the most-asked question Friday afternoon, without question.

“Where were you when it hit?” asked many folks milling around my hometown’s terrific history museum on Main Street.

“It” was an F5 tornado that hit Belmond at 2:55 p.m. on Oct. 14, 1966, just minutes after the town’s homecoming parade broke up. Six people died, both a tragedy and a miracle considering there was no warning. Not so much as a siren wailed.

Fifty years later, at 2:55 p.m., we’re looking at black-and-white photos of a smashed town, drinking coffee from Styrofoam cups and munching cookies. The tornado hit four years before I was born and seven years before my family moved to town. But I grew up with it just the same, living alongside folks who survived it and in the sturdy town they rebuilt, hearing their stories.

Like Cedar Rapids, where no one now takes a rising river lightly, my hometown didn’t shrug at severe weather. Belmond also was redefined by its remarkable ability to recover from a staggering disaster.

On Friday, I ran into my ninth-grade English teacher, Betty Houser. Houser and her husband were at a funeral in a nearby town that day when they saw a darkening sky to the south toward Belmond. They figured, if they hurried, they could get back to town to pick up their kids from school before the rain hit.

“I said, ‘Oh, Jim, look at those clouds,” Houser recalled. She said her husband scoffed, insisting it was just a typical storm.

In their haste to get back to town on Highway 69, they nearly caught the tornado. Houser said rail cars blew across the highway in front of them. The front end of their car lifted up before they realized what was happening and pulled off the road. It would be a harrowing wait until her husband, a volunteer firefighter, could make sure their kids and home were safe.

Also on hand Friday was Larry Turner, who I knew growing up as the guy who owned Home Electronics downtown. In 1966, he was a college kid home for homecoming, walking down Main Street on his way to get a haircut. He looked back toward the highway and saw a semi truck and trailer spinning in the air as the storm hit.

He didn’t get that haircut. In the aftermath, Turner left college and came back home to help his town.

And I ran into Rock Gallagher, who, like me, now lives in Marion. His dad, Pat Gallagher, ran and wrote the weekly Belmond Independent newspaper in 1966. The biggest story in the town’s history severely damaged the newspaper’s downtown offices.

Rock Gallagher said his father’s friend Carl Hamilton, who taught journalism at Iowa State and owned the Iowa Falls newspaper, sent five ISU journalism students to Belmond to help Pat Gallagher gather thread for stories from all over the stricken town. On the following Wednesday, Pat Gallagher’s Independent was published on time. The headline “Time Stood Still at 2:55; Then — Ruins!”

“The newspaper was put together on our dining room table,” Rock Gallagher said.

Time doesn’t stand still, of course. The number of folks who remember is dwindling. But these and so many other stories, like the town, can’t be swept away.

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