CHETEK, Wis. - "While there is tragedy, what we have going on here is a miracle."
Those words summed up a news conference held Wednesday morning by Barron County Sheriff Chris Fitzgerald. While the community of Chetek, Wisconsin is mourning the loss of one resident, the devastation behind the sheriff stood as testament that many more could have perished.
"The worst," Fitzgerald recalled when asked what his first reaction was after arriving at Prairie Lake Estates trailer park around 5:30 p.m. Tuesday, mere minutes after the storm tore through. Forecasters from the National Weather Service (NWS) say their preliminary damage rating for the tornado is EF2, packing winds of 120 to 130 mph. The length of its path is still being determined but could have been on the ground 30 to 40 miles.
First responders poured into the park, leaving their own storm-damaged homes to dig through the rubble of trailers that had been destroyed or badly damaged. "Our officers, deputies, firefighters lifted parts of trailer homes off of people. So originally people were extricated without any equipment but by personnel only," the sheriff explained.
Sadly, one resident did not survive the tornado. That man was identified as 45-year-old Eric Gavin, a resident of the park whose body was found outside his trailer.
"He’s a great guy, very charismatic, very kind, do anything he could for you within his means," recalled park resident Ronald Blomberg, who worked with Gavin at the local Jennie-O plant and lived right next door to him.
A Jenny-O turkey farm near Chetek was destroyed by the tornado. We can see them moving birds out right now. pic.twitter.com/rOpgxJtKlg— Lou Raguse (@LouRaguse) May 17, 2017
Blomberg was at the trailer park Wednesday morning after spending the night in town. He described getting a call from his father that a huge storm was approaching. "I loaded up my fiancée and we took off for Chetek," Blomberg explained. "We stayed there for 15, 20 minutes, then my dad called me and said 'Ronnie, the trailer park got hit. Gotta get down there.' We came right after that."
When he returned to his home Blomberg, like other surviving residents, was floored by the devastation. "I look at it with a heavy heart…I’m grateful that I and my fiancée got out, but we could have been right there with our next door neighbor Eric, and he was a great guy, a great man."
Sheriff Fitzgerald says control of the trailer park was turned back to the owners, who will allow residents to retrieve their belongings during daylight hours. A security force will be deployed on the property after dark to keep looters and crooks out.
At this time there is no electricity or gas service to the park, and the sheriff has been told that could be the situation for a week or longer. He is urging spectators to stay away so emergency responders and cleanup crews can do their job.
"Right now, stay away from the area," Fitzgerald urged, "I know everyone wants to see it and wants pictures, there are pictures in the media, just stay away, just get our efforts in here to work."
Gov Scott Walker is now here to view the tornado damage pic.twitter.com/s145N8fn6r— Lou Raguse (@LouRaguse) May 17, 2017
Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker toured the damage Wednesday afternoon. He declared a State of Emergency for Barron, Jackson and Rusk counties.
Amongst the sadness, a moment of bliss. Police rescued a pet rabbit from the rubble, 24 hours after the tornado hit.