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“The tornado was in the house”: Gaylord residents share stories of survival as the community recovers from the destruction

A family friend hugs William McQueen (right) whose home was destroyed by the tornado that ripped through Gaylord on Friday.
Taylor Wizner
/
Interlochen Public Radio
A family friend hugs William McQueen (right) whose home was destroyed by the tornado that ripped through Gaylord on Friday.

William McQueen was at work as a trucker, hauling freight somewhere between Chicago and Detroit, when a tornado hit his home in Gaylord.

When he returned on Saturday, he could hardly believe what he saw.

“This is a 1970 house with a flat roof but there’s no roof to be found,” he said. “I bought this about five years ago and everything’s gone. Gone.”

In the 26 minutes the tornado moved across Otsego County, winds reaching 140 miles per hour caused two deaths and 44 injuries.

William’s family was among those injured. His daughter, Kimberly, and her four young children were at his home when the tornado hit.

Kimberly told him the force of the winds almost sucked his six-year-old granddaughter, Sophia, out of a window. Kimberly grabbed her by the foot mid-air.

“And drew her back in, laid on top of her, shoved the boys underneath the couch, the futon that we have, and that’s why they were more protected,” William said.

William’s entire roof was blown right off his home.
Taylor Wizner
/
Interlochen Public Radio
William’s entire roof was blown right off his home.

He said Kimberly had at least 25 pieces of glass in her back. Sophia had a big gash on her forehead. William said they were being treated overnight at the hospital in Petoskey.

Several parts of Gaylord took the brunt of the storm. Warehouse stores crumbled in a commercial area of town. Next door, at the Nottingham Forest mobile home park, the Michigan State Police reported two residents in their 70s died.

On Saturday, William picked through the rubble of his home for the irreplaceable things, like gifts from his grandchildren and family photos. He held a salvaged photo of himself and his granddaughter still in its frame. He pressed a button on the frame and it played a pre-recorded message from Sophia.

William choked up as he realized what might have happened to her.

William’s granddaughter, Sophia, was hospitalized for wounds sustained during the tornado.
Taylor Wizner
/
Interlochen Public Radio
William’s granddaughter, Sophia, was hospitalized for wounds sustained during the tornado.

Across the street, another resident, Mike Frazee, was standing in his front yard looking at the damage to his boat, parked in his driveway. He had purchased it just two days before.

“We insured it at 1 pm, or 2 before the storm,” Mike said. “Hopefully it goes through, because I’m sure there’s damage on the other side. The whole tree was on it.”

A woman wearing work gloves came by to see if Mike needed any help.

Mike thanked her but said others had already helped him move away tree debris earlier that day.

Talking about the events of the day before, Mike was still a little shaken. The afternoon of the tornado, he’d been trying to get a few hours of sleep before his shift as a Boyne City police officer started. He woke up instead to a swirl of dust and debris pouring into his mouth and eyes. He pulled his blanket over his face as his wife, Maria, ran into the room.

“I was like, ‘How can I see outside right now?’”

Mike Frazee stands where he was sleeping when winds pulled away his bedroom wall.
Taylor Wizner
/
Interlochen Public Radio
Mike Frazee stands where he was sleeping when winds pulled away his bedroom wall.

Mike said it only lasted about thirty seconds before it was all over. The outside wall of his bedroom had separated from the roof. The living room, where his wife had been studying, was filled with jagged shards of glass from their large window.

Looking across the street at a car flipped over on its roof, Mike was thankful the damage wasn’t worse.

“I am very grateful that this wall held up because with what happened to that vehicle over there I definitely know if the wall would’ve [gone], I would’ve [gone] too.”

Mike’s wife, Maria Frazee, narrowly escaped injury from broken glass.
Mike Frazee
Mike’s wife, Maria Frazee, narrowly escaped injury from broken glass.

Tornados in northern Michigan are so infrequent, Gaylord doesn’t have a siren to warn people. Mike said he never expected to worry about it when he moved from Kansas two years ago.

“We’re now in northern Michigan and one goes right through the city that we live in now. And we’re like, ‘Are you kidding me?’ We thought we got away from that.”

Shock at the damage soon turned into an outpouring of support from the community. All day Saturday, neighbors arrived on foot or by bike to help with the cleanup. Some came to town from as far away as Sault Ste. Marie and the Lansing area.

The helpers, emergency responders and utility workers made quick progress. By Sunday, the Michigan State Police said all residents were accounted for and power had been restored to almost everyone. Recovery efforts were still ongoing.

Taylor Wizner covers heath, tourism and other news for Interlochen Public Radio.