Today @ Colorado State has been replaced by SOURCE. This site exists as an archive of Today @ Colorado State stories between January 1, 2009 and September 8, 2014.

Working at CSU

Run for the root cellar!

July 9, 2009

Tornadoes are scary and dangerous - witness the Windsor tornado of May 2008. But this spring's frequent hail, heavy rain, and tornadoes have sparked memories of a truly wild weather event that happened more than 20 years ago.

On a June afternoon in 1987, Pat Rastall, who now is director of Pingree Park, was putting the finishing touches on a ropes course at the mountain campus when he noticed the weather was boiling up more than usual. He and others stared at a dark, swirling mass of clouds forming over Stormy Peaks and wondered what they were seeing.

“We didn’t think it could possibly be a tornado,” Rastall said. “Tornados aren’t common this high in the mountains – Pingree sits at 9,000 feet.”

But in moments, curiosity turned into a mad scramble for safety as the funnel cloud formed and touched down.

Oz revisited

“The roar was incredible,” Rastall said, “and it just kept getting louder and louder. I remember seeing what I thought were tree branches blowing around and around in the funnel, but then I realized that those small branches were actually fully grown trees.”

A music camp for kids and a church group were visiting campus, so Rastall and other staff scooted about 20 of the kids into an old, unused root cellar nearby.

“I thought that was pretty funny,” he said. “Hiding from a tornado in a root cellar, something right out of the Wizard of Oz.”

Hop, skip, jump

Bill Bertschy, Pingree’s director at the time (he retired in 2008), was fixing a phone line in a field when the tornado spun down the valley.

“It kind of hopped around from south to north and skipped right over power lines, leaving them intact,” he said. “But trees were ripped up and tossed all over the place. You often hear descriptions of trees being blown over like matchsticks, and that was exactly what happened.”

The tornado cut a swath hundreds of yards wide and several miles long, from Pingree down to Sky Ranch Road. Rastall estimates that some 1,500 trees were destroyed.

“It’s incredible what it missed, though,” Bertschy said. “Trees were laid down almost neatly right beside cars. None of the cars were so much as scratched.”

Years of clean-up

Although no residence or conference buildings were damaged – there were no injuries, either – the roof of the wastewater plant was torn off and a maintenance shed destroyed. Clearing the trees, however, took a few years. Some of the trees blocked the only road into Pingree.

“My poor ropes course,” Rastall said. “We had just finished it after five years of construction. I literally was putting cosmetic touches on it and dusting my hands off when the tornado destroyed the whole thing. All of it, piled up like kindling. I needed a chain saw just to get in far enough to retrieve hardware and other stuff.”

The ropes course was eventually rebuilt (photo at right), facilities repaired, and the mountain campus resumed normal operations – until the Hourglass Fire of 1994.

Next week: A towering inferno hits Pingree Park.

Story by Paul Miller