COMFREY, Minn. (WCCO) — One hour before a vicious tornado ripped into the city of St. Peter on March 29, 1998, another one was leaving atrial of destruction 60 miles west.
An F4 tornado left the small town of Comfrey, in Brown County, in total ruins. Just one-minute after the severe weather siren sounded, 75 percent of Comfrey was severely damaged or destroyed.
“I just have to be thanking God every day,” recalls Cyrilla Wall.
The mother of four children was trying to get her kids to safety when the tornado hit. She remembers clinging to the front steps and being pummeled by debris. The next thing she knew was trying to reach the couple’s 12-year-old daughter, Crystal, who was still inside the home, which didn’t have a basement.
Cyrilla had another child in her arms and could only watch in horror as her house and young daughter were blown away.
“As soon as it stopped, I ran to Marv (her husband) and I said Crystal went with the house, I don’t know where she is,” Wall said.
Miraculously, Crystal was found with just a cut to her forehead. She had become lodged under a 30-foot evergreen and protected from the flying debris by the branches. Cyrilla suffered a separated shoulder, bruises and four broken ribs.
“Our guardian angels were there with us,” Wall said.
But the town of 446 people was pretty much leveled. The tornado made a direct hit on the K-12 school building, downtown businesses and most of Comfrey’s homes.
“Reminds you of where we are today,” said former Comfrey Mayor Linda Wallin, as she walks up to a monument near city hall.
The granite marker stands as a tribute to the resiliency of residents who decided to rebuild. Wallin was among them, and recalls thinking she was the lone survivor as she first made her way out of her home and onto the downtown street.
“That was my initial feeling, when I got to this street cause I saw nobody, there was nobody around. That’s how bad it looked,” Wallin said.
But the biggest key to complete recovery was rebuilding the destroyed school.
“It was to keep the people here, so that the businesses could be supported. Otherwise you don’t have much business support in a small town,” Wallin said.
Now, new buildings and trees line most of Comfrey’s streets.
“It defeated the buildings and everything but it didn’t defeat the people,” said Comfrey Police Chief Jim Meyer.
Chief Meyer was out patrolling a neighboring county that fateful day and remembers feeling lost when he first made his way back into his home town.
“I’d been in this town 20 years and all of a sudden you don’t know where you are. You lose all your landmarks. The buildings were gone the trees were gone and nothing was familiar,” Meyer said.
For Cyrilla Wall, a scrapbook brings it all back.
“Still, just as fresh in my mind as it was then,” Wall said.
Today, 20 years later, Comfrey is a town of new landmarks. But it came at a cost no one would ever chose to pay.
“Everything is new, it’s different, but at least it’s still Comfrey!” Wall said.
Outside the post office, a commemorative plaque calls the March 29 tornado the city’s “greatest challenge.” But a challenge that was answered by resident’s ultimate opportunity to rise again.