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Cokato residents share their stories of the 1992 tornado
Monday, June 18, 2012

By Jennifer Kotila
Staff Writer

COKATO, MN – When the tornado hit the town of Cokato at about 11:15 p.m. June 16, 1992, many outside of town, including many in Dassel, did not even know anything had happened.

It was not until they saw it on the news, or tried to come to town, that they realized the devastation caused by the tornado.

The Darrel Kotila family lived about six miles north of Cokato, about a mile west of Wright County Road 3, and no one in the family woke up during the storm.

The next morning, the Kotilas went to pick up their neighbors, the Donny Olson family, for vacation Bible school at Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church in French Lake.

The Olsons lived about two miles away, as the crow flies, from the Kotilas, and the tops of their trees were all gone.

The Olsons were astounded that the Kotilas were still planning to go to vacation Bible school. “Haven’t you heard? Cokato’s been demolished by a tornado!” is what one of the Olson children exclaimed.

The two families piled into the Kotila minivan and headed to Cokato. Needless to say, there was not much to see since travel was impossible south of US Highway 12.

Although the families tried to go around and get into town another way, it was also impossible.

However, those in town were just beginning to see just how much was destroyed in the tornado, how close many had come to losing their lives, and the strange things tornados leave in their wake.

Former lumber yard manager shares his memories

“My wife woke me up and told me a tornado was coming and we should get in the basement,” said United Building Center manager Jerome Sopkowiak. “She’d been doing that for 10 to 15 years at that time, so I told her to wake me up when it got there.”

Sopkowiak’s wife woke him up after a tree fell through the bedroom window. “Is it time yet?” she asked. He replied, “It’s too late, now,” and tried to go back to sleep.

“Just when I fell asleep, an officer came knocking at the door,” Sopkowiak said. The officer was telling Sopkowiak he had to go open up the lumber yard, but couldn’t walk there due to all the downed power lines; he’d have to drive.

Sopkowiak looked at the trees covering his vehicles in the driveway, and told the officer that wouldn’t be possible.

“After a few rounds back and forth, the officer decided he could give me a ride,” Sopkowiak said.

Sopkowiak was amazed at all the damage he saw as he and the officer made their way to the lumber yard – downed power lines and trees, and garages with their walls blown out.

The officer stopped the squad car in front of UBC (currently ProBuild), looked at Sopkowiak, and said he had other places he needed to be, forcing Sopkowiak out of the car.

“I didn’t have a flashlight, and the lumber was spread all over the street,” Sopkowiak said.

The neighbor across the street from the lumber yard, Jackie Martinson saw Sopkowiak wandering through the street and asked him what he was doing, and then went to get some flashlights.

With the electricity and phones being out for about three days, “We wrote everything down, like in the old days,” Sopkowiak said.

Over the course of the next few days, as Sopkowiak put the lumber yard back together and assisted the residents of Cokato in any way possible, he heard some strange things that had happened in the storm.

For instance, another neighbor across the street from UBC had a baby sleeping in a crib right under a window. When the window broke during the storm, glass surrounded the crib, but, thankfully, none had landed in the crib or on the baby, he said.

Leonard Sanftner, who lived on Hwy. 12 near Cenex and the old NAPA store, and whose house was destroyed, found rocks from the Green Giant canning factory in his freezer.

However, the newspaper he had been reading the night before was still open to the same page as when he had gone to bed.

Gladys Forsberg’s home was also destroyed in the tornado, and she stayed at Ron Nikula’s when he found her after the tornado struck.

In the morning, Forsberg told Nikula she needed her reading glasses, which were on top of her Bible on her dresser.

The wall behind the dresser was the only wall of the house left standing – and there was the dresser, with the Bible and Forsberg’s glasses on top of it.

However, the Bible was filled with insulation from the roof of Forsberg’s house.

At Phil Thinesen’s house, he had a large picture window with a perfect circle cut in the middle, and not another crack in it, Fopkowiak said.

As the trees were being cut and hauled out of town, the pile got to be pretty big, Sopkowiak said.

The major event that came out of the experience for Sopkowiak is he became “a movie star.”

Sopkowiak was in a commercial by UBC letting Minnesotans know that UBC would be there in their time of need. The commercial aired during every Twins game in 1993.

Cokato teacher shares her memories

Gail Berggren, a second-grade teacher at Cokato Elementary, had all the windows of her classroom blown out, causing the class books to get wet and ruined, and there was glass all over the desks in her classroom.

“I still keep some of the books and show the kids,” Berggren said.

But one of the items she still actually uses in her classroom was a little harder to come by.

Berggren had a poster for each month that showed a specific sporting event, which she couldn’t buy anymore.

The tornado had blown the 12 pages out of her classroom and they were scattered around the outside of the school.

Her oldest daughter, Anna, took it upon herself to help Berggren find all of the missing pieces.

“We never thought we would find them all,” Berggren said, but they did. Berggren said she still uses them to this day as she is teaching her second-graders.

Anna wasn’t the only child searching through all the debris left behind from the tornado, Berggren noted,

There were a lot of kids out helping find pictures, important documents, and other treasured items for people who had lost their homes.

Berggren noted there was a lot of talk about there being no warning before the tornado hit, but she remembers her husband, Tom, complaining about his ears popping starting at about 3 or 4 p.m. that day.

“We didn’t even go to bed – we knew something would be happening,” Berggren said, adding that they kept the kids in the basement that night.

One of her neighbors, the Reiwers, lost their garage in the tornado, and the Berggren’s had a shingle (possibly from the Reiwer’s garage) stuck in their garage door.

After the tornado, a bowling ball that had been on a shelf in the Berggren’s garage was found laying in their neighbor’s backyard, even though the windows, doors, and the roof of the garage were intact.

“The tornado must have lifted up the garage,” Berggren said, noting it was slightly off its foundation after that.

Berggren noted that the days after the tornado were not nice, but rainy and cold, and the electricity was out.

Co-worker and fellow second-grade teacher Gail Ganser, who lives in Dassel, was amazed when she learned what had happened at the school, Berggren noted.

It took a while for those living outside of town to know what happened, she said.

A few days after the storm, she went to the Cokato laundromat, where another woman looked at her and said, “This isn’t fun anymore.”

“And she was right,” Berggren said, noting the adrenaline and notoriety had worn off and things were just hard.

She also said the chain saws were running all summer, and were so loud, it would give you a headache.

Berggren’s dad came into Cokato to help the day after the tornado, and had to leave his car on Hwy. 12.

However, he was prepared and had brought a wagon to haul jugs of water to the Berggren house.

When he arrived, the World War II vet looked at his daughter and said, “This looks like a war zone.”

One of Berggren’s cousins worked for Tom Thumb, and was sent to Cokato from corporate to make sure the store could remain open to help others.

The tornado took many of the trees in Cokato, and Berggren remembers one woman making the comment she could see all the way to Dassel now.

The Berggrens attended the Evangelical Lutheran Church on Third Street and she remembers walking to the church and seeing all the trees gone.

“But the stained glass windows (of the church) survived,” Berggren said.

Berggren did note that the tornado ended up being a good thing for the school.

Her classroom was in a part of the building that was very old, built in 1929, and who knows when it would have been replaced if a tornado hadn’t ripped through it, she said.

Bob Gasch’s story

On the night of the tornado, Bob Gasch and his wife were on their way home from a concert at Orchestra Hall.

He remembers the weather being really hot, windy, and sticky.

After driving through Howard Lake, he noticed the town go black in his rearview mirror.

Gasch finally had to pull over just east of Cokato, because he couldn’t see to drive.

After the storm had passed, Gasch continued west on Hwy. 12, but had to stop under the railroad viaduct due to downed power poles.

He turned around, but could not get through Cokato up Third Street or Seventh Street due to all the downed trees and power lines.

Finally, he was able to go around Cokato on 60th Street SW, which only had one lane open.

Gasch and his wife were wondering what had happened to their house, which was located just northwest of the Dassel-Cokato High School.

“There was only one little branch down – that’s it,” Gasch said.

The next day, Gasch came to Cokato to help those who needed it. He spent the day at Lyle Severson’s house, which was buried in trees.

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