A long night remembered: 3 families share their stories of tornado that hit Dickinson 5 years ago today
Editor’s Note: There are literally hundreds of stories and different accounts of the night an EF-3 tornado struck the south side of Dickinson on July 8, 2009. Five years later, we take a look at three families — two of them next-door neighbors — and what they went through that day and in the tornado’s aftermath. Also see columns by Press Lifestyles Editor Linda Sailer and Managing Editor Dustin Monke about their tornado experiences.
Jim and Betty Anton were sitting in their living room the night of July 8, 2009, when the sky turned dark seemingly in an instant.
Often, they had discussed where would be the best place to take cover in case the threat of a tornado ever turned real. Their house had a basement, but no place down there seemed perfect. The Antons had ultimately decided they would either go underneath the staircase connecting the main floor and the basement or crawl beneath their pool table.
That night, with only seconds to act, the Antons chose the pool table.
Jim Anton knew they had to move fast when he looked out their front window and saw trees flying by.
“He couldn’t finish the word basement’ fast enough, and we went down and got right under the pool table,” Betty Anton said.
“We slid under there like butter.”
As they laid face down under the pool table, the Antons heard what sounded like a train going through their house. Betty’s glasses flew off her face and hit the basement wall, followed by a crunching sound.
“And it was over with,” she said.
As quickly as the tornado came, it was gone. What meteorologists would later describe as an EF-3 “jumper,” moved east across Dickinson and continued out of town.
When all seemed quiet and safe again, Jim Anton pulled himself out from underneath the pool table and carefully walked upstairs. He didn’t linger there.
“He got right back downstairs, got under the pool table and said, ‘The living room is gone,’” Betty said.
Only minutes earlier, two blocks to the west of Antons on Third Avenue Southwest, Greg Wilkinson had just arrived home from work and was talking to his neighbor when his wife, Stacy, came outside.
“You better get inside, it’s gonna hail,” she said.
Just then, Stacy looked up to the sky.
“It was like nothing I’d ever seen before,” she said.
Quickly, she ran inside the house and gathered up their three boys, all under the age of 10 at the time, and headed downstairs.
It was the last time the Wilkinsons would ever see the exterior of their home intact.
“From the time I got in until the time the house was in pieces was two minutes,” Greg said.
Greg, the last of the family to get in the house, ran downstairs and rapidly began removing plastic storage tubs from beneath the basement staircase.
“I said, ‘What are you doing? Quit making a mess!’ Stacy said, “He’s just quiet and said, ‘You need to get under here.’”
As the storm approached, the Wilkinsons began hearing loud crashes and the electricity go out.
Mason Wilkinson, then just 9 years old, asked his parents, “Can we say a prayer?”
“I said, ‘Yeah, you better say a couple of them,’” Greg said.
As the storm passed overhead, Greg Wilkinson peaked his head out of the basement room under the staircase where his family was huddled and saw what looked like snow. He later realized it was insulation from the roof that has being blown out into the open.
“I whispered to Stacy, ‘Don’t say nothing, but I think we lost part of the roof,’” he said. “That point is when it really started getting scary.”
Greg realized the water and gas lines inside their home had broken, spraying water on them from above while the smell of natural gas permeated throughout the basement. He began taking steps to shut both lines off.
“You’re trying to think one step ahead of what’s going on,” he said.
Soon, the storm began to subside and the Wilkinsons felt safe enough to leave their basement.
“We went upstairs at that point and realized that everything was pretty well gone,” Greg said.
Tammy Galipeau was on the north side of Dickinson for a church function with her daughter, Chantel, when the tornado sirens started going off. Though she knew the storm had hit the south side of town, she — like most others — was unaware that a tornado had touched down and had no idea about the extent of the damage it was doing.
When she got close to her street, she saw that it was surrounded by fire trucks and police cars.
“I hadn’t realized that the tornado had destroyed the house,” Galipeau said.
She pulled into the back of her house, got out and saw her van that had been parked inside the garage was sitting outside.
“Then I realize my whole garage was gone, so I walked up closer,” she said. “All the trees were gone. I realized it was open. You could see the roof was gone.”
Galipeau’s garage had flown across the street and into the Antons’ house. Clothes inside her laundry room attached to the garage were in the neighbors’ yard.
To the west of her house, an apartment building had been ripped apart and a chunk had caved in the wall of her daughter Chelsey’s bedroom.
“It’s amazing what a tornado does,” Tammy Galipeau said. “Some neighbors didn’t get that bad of damage.”
As the Wilkinsons emerged from their home, they were shocked at the amount of damage their street had sustained.
Greg found his cellphone and called his brother, Rob.
“I was pretty shook up, I called Rob and said, ‘My house is gone.” He goes, ‘Well who took it?’” Greg said. “I said, ‘Quit screwing around.’ I thought the whole town (got hit).”
One of Greg’s friends, who lived on the other side of the Heart River, told him that night that he saw the tornado hit the Wilkinsons’ home. As soon as the storm had moved on, his friend quickly drove over — arriving at the scene before the authorities — and eventually took Stacy and the kids while Greg surveyed the damage, picked up whatever he could and waited for Rob to arrive.
He grabbed a tool set floating in the flooded basement, as well as an antique gun that once belonged to his grandfather. He went back later that night to try salvaging more, but the North Dakota National Guard and law enforcement officials wouldn’t let them into the house because of safety concerns.
“We tried getting back in and there was no getting in there,” Greg said.
As he tried going to sleep early the next morning, Greg could only lay there there thinking.
“The whole thing was pretty surreal,” he said. “You’re laying in bed going, ‘We just lost our house.’ It’s unbelievable. You hear all day long, ‘There’s a bad storm coming tonight,’ and you don’t think much of it. I was standing on my neighbor’s porch two minutes from the time (the tornado hit.)”
Cleanup began when the sun came up the next morning. Tammy Galipeau left a friend’s home where she and her daughter had spent the night and headed back to see what remained of her house around 6:30 a.m.
It was thrashed. The torn roof and collapsed walls had let rain and other water in, destroying almost everything inside.
“We started picking things up, but you didn’t know where to begin,” she said.
Her brother, Rod Torgerson, was the principal of Trinity High School at the time and volunteered a school bus to help the Galipeaus move whatever they could out of the house. Other friends came with pickups and began hastily moving whatever they could find, regardless of if it had been damaged.
“We were really blessed,” Tammy said.
Across the street, the Antons surveyed their own damage, including a camper destroyed by the tornado and a flat-screen TV accidentally dropped to the floor when the Dickinson Fire Department made their way into the home for a safety check.
Jim Anton remembers looking around the street in the daylight.
“It’s just like somebody dropped a bomb,” he said.
That morning, word began to circulate that despite the damage the storm had inflicted, few injuries had been reported and none were very serious.
“It was very fortunate nobody got hurt,” Betty Anton said. “The worst we heard was people stepping on nails.”
Greg Wilkinson was standing in the remains of his family’s home “a day or so after” the tornado when a woman approached him and told him of a group of volunteers gathering in the then-Buttreys parking lot who would be coming to his neighborhood to help.
He told her there were some bricks from a collapsed retaining wall he needed moved out of his backyard. Twenty minutes later, a “fire brigade line” was set up in his yard, moving bricks out of his backyard one at a time.
“It was just really cool how everybody came together,” he said. It was really humbling.”
Betty Anton was washing salvaged clothing at a laundromat when she struck up conversation with a stranger. The woman told Betty she was from Seattle and wanted to help. She handed Betty a check for $500.
Betty told the woman she couldn’t accept it, but the woman was insistent. She told the woman to write the check to the Tornado Band-Aid Relief Benefit so that the money would go into the general donation fund that went to help all of the tornado victims.
“Never saw her again,” Betty said.
The rebuilding process spanned for more than three years. Some, like Tammy Galipeau, say they’re still trying to put the finishing touches on their homes.
Her house was once a log cabin with a green roof. It now has a deep red siding.
Tammy and her children chose to do a lot of interior remodeling themselves as the majority of contractors at the time were booked solid with rebuilding projects. A couple years after the tornado, the onset of the western North Dakota oil boom made finding help even more difficult.
“You couldn’t hire anybody,” she said.
Galipeau said her kids helped install flooring, carpeting and the kitchen cupboards. Her son, Cody, had a friend drive through the night from Oregon shortly after the tornado. He stayed in Dickinson for weeks to help the Galipeaus repair their roof.
Other projects persist even today, Tammy said. While the major projects, like bedrooms, have long since been completed, Galipeau said she’s still working on the house. A sub-basement storage room is in the process of being sheetrocked, which is the final project.
“I just got the gas fireplace put back in,” she said with a laugh. “It’s been five years.”
The inside of Jim and Betty Anton’s home looks different than it did five years ago. Her brother, a contractor, went right to work on their home after the storm.
Even though much has changed on the inside and out, one constant remains — the pool table they believe saved their lives.
It’s still in the basement and Jim said when they eventually sell the house, it’ll have to be part of the deal. It’s pretty heavy, he said with a hearty laugh.
Though their house is still home, Betty said she’s the first to admit she gets nervous when bad weather rolls through Dickinson and often wonders if she’ll have to go hide under the pool table again.
“To this day, we shriek every time there’s a storm,” Betty said with a smile.
But, looking out the window from their kitchen table, the Antons know they were fortunate to walk away unharmed and are still able to call the house that helped save their lives home.
“We lost a lot, but somebody got it worse,” Betty said. “No matter how bad it was, somebody got it worse.”