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Book about 1968 tornado includes connections to Worthington

TRACY, Minn. -- June 13, 1968. It's a date that has both haunted and fascinated Scott Thoma for most of his life. He was 9 when the first recorded EF-5 tornado in Minnesota history tore through his hometown of Tracy, killing nine, injuring 125 an...

TRACY, Minn. -- June 13, 1968.

It's a date that has both haunted and fascinated Scott Thoma for most of his life.

He was 9 when the first recorded EF-5 tornado in Minnesota history tore through his hometown of Tracy, killing nine, injuring 125 and destroying nearly one-fourth of the town's structures.

"Our house got turned off the foundation. They had to tear it down," said Thoma. "We saw the tornado going out of town. Our yard was 3 feet high with everything -- a lot of the stuff from the school across the street, globes and desks and books ended up in our yard."

Thoma family jumped into action in the wake of the tornado.

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"My dad was going to go help the neighbors, and he took me with. Somebody called out that two people were missing, so he went to help look for them and sat me on the corner of the block and told me not to run around," Thoma said.

"I watched him uncover two dead bodies. It was the first dead body I'd ever seen," Thoma said about that day.

It's been 45 years since the tornado, and Thoma can still envision the scene clearly.

'Out of the Blue'

After graduating from Tracy High School, Thoma worked as a sports reporter and editor at a daily newspaper for more than 30 years. Living in Willmar, Minn., he eventually focused his writing talents into a historical account about the Tracy tornado, "Out of the Blue," which was published last year.

"I lived through it and always wanted to write something about it, but it seemed like every story had already been told," Thoma said. "Then, I came across this story of two sisters. I always heard that they had been blown out of their house during the tornado, but there had not been a lot written."

Thoma resolved to write "Out of the Blue" about the Tracy tornado from their perspective, but first he had to get the two women to open up about their experiences. While they survived the tornado, a 2-year-old child in their care did not.

Their story began in Worthington, Minn., where their older sister, Linda, went to work at Campbell Soup Co. There, she met and married a co-worker, Clifford. She also became friends with another co-worker, Susan, who had a baby out of wedlock.

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"Linda would watch this little girl, so Susan could go out once in a while," Thoma said, and "Linda got really close to this little girl."

The child's father had been killed while working on his automobile, and Susan wasn't ready for motherhood. When Linda and Clifford married, they asked to adopt the child, named Nancy, and Susan agreed. In the meantime, Clifford was drafted in the Vietnam War, and Linda and Nancy returned to Tracy.

Linda, then 20, her younger sister, Pam, 8, and Nancy, 2, were at Linda's rented house when the tornado struck.

'She thought it was a fire'

In 1968, the emergency signal system in Tracy was a whistle -- different tones used to indicate the type of emergency.

"She thought it was a fire instead of a tornado," Thoma said. "With the wind and the hail and everything, and you're inside the house, she could hear it was a whistle, but it was hard to hear.

"They were just heading down to the basement when the back door blew off the hinges, then blew them outside," he said.

It's estimated the Tracy tornado had winds exceeding 300 mph. Once the tornado sucked them out of the house, Linda was unable to hang on to Nancy.

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Her small body was found one block away.

"Susan was still working at Campbell Soup when she heard about the tornado," Thoma said. "She took off work and drove to Tracy to make sure everyone was OK. Linda had already been brought to the hospital, and they wouldn't let them see her. That's when she found out her daughter had been killed."

Nancy Vlahos was buried in the Worthington Cemetery, one of two victims laid to rest there, according to Thoma.

In all the years, Linda and Susan never spoke -- until Thoma's research brought them together again.

"It took a lot of phone calls to track down Susan," he said. "I gave her Linda's phone number, and they talked. ... I know that she did tell (Linda), 'I don't hold you responsible.'"

Therapeutic

While "Out of the Blue" is focused on an overwhelming tragedy, Thoma is gratified that some good has come out of it. He also found writing it was personally beneficial.

"My dad and I, until he died a few years ago, were incredibly close -- best friends," Thoma said. "So to tell the story about him in there was therapeutic in a way," he said.

"It was for Linda, too, and Pam. It was therapeutic for them to talk about it and have another person ask them questions about it. I can tell Linda is much more open about it now, feels the weight of the world lifted from her after the biological mother told her, 'I don't blame you.'"

"Out of the Blue" is now in its third printing, and Thoma markets it through a website and public appearances.

"I donate part of the money I make from selling it," Thoma said he donates part of the proceeds from book sales for victims of a house fire in Tracy and more organizations.

Most recently, the proceeds have gone to help erect a monument to Tracy tornado victims.

For more information about "Out of the Blue" or to order a copy, visit thomabooks.com.

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