Monster Tornado Caught Parkersburg by Surprise

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For the town of Parkersburg, Iowa, May 25, 2008, started out like any other Sunday.

It was Memorial Day weekend, a day filled with church, family and relaxed celebrations around town. Little did the people of this small town know that just before 5 p.m. they would be faced with a terrifying force that would change their small community, and their lives, forever.

VIDEO: Tornado Strikes Small Town Iowa
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Police Chief Chris Luhring, 29, was off duty that day, relaxing with his wife and young children at his in-laws' farm a few miles outside of town.

By early afternoon, the family was outside on the deck, when a storm began to roll in. As the clouds darkened and hail started to fall, the Luhrings admired the power of Mother Nature, unaware of what was about to happen just down the road.

Tyann Lester, then 34, had just finished her morning shift as manager of the Pizza Ranch, a popular hangout located on Highway 57, the main road in town. Her 16-year-old son, Damion, was scheduled to work that afternoon. He quickly dropped her off at home, a few miles from Parkersburg.

As Tyann noticed the clouds darken, she wondered if Damion should skip work and stay home.

But soon her husband called to tell her that a tornado warning had been issued, a common occurrence in this area of the country. "Usually, anytime a tornado warning comes on, nobody thinks anything of it because it never does anything. But it — this day, it just didn't — it didn't feel right," said Lester.

"I thought ... something doesn't feel right. And he looked at me and said, I think it's gonna be a slow night at Pizza Ranch, Mom."

Reluctantly, she let him go.

Meanwhile, just across the street from Pizza Ranch at Matt's Bar and Grill, local football and wrestling champ John Simon, then 17, was setting up for his high school graduation party.

John had decorated the restaurant with his trophies and awards, and was expecting a huge turnout to celebrate his accomplishment.

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Tornado Strikes Town as Residents Celebrate Graduation, Memorial Day

"My dad owned a bar and restaurant for 40-some years, and everybody knew us and we knew everybody. So we didn't want to forget anybody," said John. His family even put an ad in the local paper to announce the celebration.

John's girlfriend, Chelsea Poppens, was there to help out. His younger brother Jordan, who was expected at the party, was nowhere to be found.

Everyone gathered was holding out hope that the incoming rain wouldn't ruin the celebration. But as they cheerfully prepared for the party, the dark clouds become impossible to ignore.

They turned on the TV for the latest weather report. It was ominous. "I was like, 'Crap. Nobody's gonna be coming to my graduation,'" said John.

With thunderstorms approaching, storm spotters from nearby police and fire departments were on high alert, surveying the countryside for any possible sign of a tornado.

At about 4:40 p.m., storm spotter Ben McMillan spotted swirling dust formations, an early indication of tornadoes, about 15 miles southwest of Parkersburg. He quickly radioed the National Weather Service, and a warning was issued to Parkersburg and the neighboring counties.

As McMillan turned on his video camera and began to record, an ominous tornado formed above the Iowa cornfields, just miles from Parkersburg.

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