Tornado rips through Baker; community comes together

Baker tornado

Travis Hatfield

This photo, and the picture below, depict Saturday night’s tornado devastation in Baker.

He didn’t know the man’s name, only that he needed help.

“We could hear him under the wreckage, but we couldn’t quite see him yet.”

Travis Hatfield frantically followed the cries until he came across an elderly man covered in debris.

“He had a large beam lying across his chest that had trapped him,” said Hatfield.

From beneath the rubble, Hatfield says the man was bloodied and shaken. With the help of Hatfield and others, he was freed from the grips of mangled metal and rubble.

“I helped him out from what used to be his house.”

On Saturday night an EF-2 tornado hit the town of Baker, Mont. According to the National Weather Service, initial reports were called in around the 7 o’clock hour.

Despite leveled homes, there were no fatalities and no reports of major injuries.

Hatfield, 30, is a transplant, relocated to Baker to work for the railroad. His wife and his three children have lived in the town for two months.

Just a few hours before, the family had been celebrating a wedding reception. His wife, Holly, was the first to hear the tornado sirens.

“Holly had come into the reception and said she could hear tornado warnings outside,” said Hatfield.

“I looked up and I saw the beginning rotation right above where we were.”

With his three young children, the family scrambled into their truck and tried to escape the storm.

“It was pretty much a torrential downpour, mixed with hail. We had turned a corner and I asked Holly to start recording,” said Hatfield. “It’s breathtaking. It sounds like a freight train.”

From the base of the tornado they captured footage illustrating the magnitude of the storm.

In a different corner of town was Jennifer Altenburg Boka, general manager of the Northern International Livestock Exposition, based in Billings. Boka was there to cheer on her daughter at the State High School Rodeo.

IMG_3101In the midst of a tie-roping event, she said, everyone was evacuated into the shelter at the Fallon County Fairgrounds.

“We could see out the windows of the shelter,” said Boka. “We saw the funnel cloud touch down just behind the fairgrounds and rip across the lake and through parts of town.”

Boka said the aftermath of the tornado was surreal.

“The sheriff official with us in the shelter begged for those that were able and willing to please come and help locate people in the devastated area of town.”

A town of roughly 1,900 people, Baker is nestled in extreme Eastern Montana, hugging the North Dakota border. A weather event like the one on Saturday will likely be felt for years to come.

“Montana people have never seen anything like this,” said Boka. “It’s something that takes your breath away. It leaves you awestruck, dumbfounded and speechless.”

As can often be the cruel injustice of Mother Nature, some homes were demolished by the devastation, while others just narrowly dodged tragedy.

“There were two or three square blocks where there were homes completely destroyed, and then you see places that were completely unscathed while the place right next to it is leveled,” said Boka.

“There would be a home right next to it that looks like a twig didn’t brush by it, and the next house left in splinters.”

For those left standing in the tornado’s wake, shock was all consuming.

“Their faces were almost empty. They were just standing in their doorways with devastation surrounding them,” said Boka. “It was almost like they were frozen.”

Boka and Hatfield were among those trying desperately to help where they could be of use.

“There were about 11 or 12 homes that were damaged severely enough that you couldn’t tell it was a home anymore,” said Hatfield.

Boka says seeing the teamwork that emerged from a traumatic situation was incredible, and it will be in that same spirit of teamwork that the community will find new life.

“It does something for a community like this, and it’s something to see what it actually means for a community to come together.”

As Hatfield reflected on the trauma of the evening, he remembered the man in the rubble. He said he still didn’t know his name.

“I hope he’s going to be okay,” said Hatfield.

As this small Montana town begins the tedious process of rebuilding the heart of its city, one thing is abundantly clear, the spirit of Baker is strong.

“It strengthens your resolve and your understanding that there truly is compassion among people,” said Boka.

Proof of that resilience was found in the countless helping hands that reached out in the midst of one community’s darkest moment.

To see Travis Hatfield’s video of the tornado, click here.

Simone De Alba is a broadcast journalist and freelance reporter. Currently based in Sacramento as an anchor and reporter, she began her career in Montana working with local television stations for three years. She has reported live for networks such as CNN and CBS. 

Leave a Reply