Barneveld Tornado: June 8, 1984

By: Dana Brueck and Chris Woodard
By: Dana Brueck and Chris Woodard

Note: On June 8, 1984, a violent tornado struck the village of Barneveld in east-central Wisconsin. Last year (2009) marked the 25th anniversary of the tragedy. NBC15 produced the following stories. To watch these videos, click on the video links ABOVE.

By NBC15's Dana Brueck:

25 years ago Monday, a powerful tornado wiped-out Barneveld. The tornado hit after midnight while many people were sleeping. 90% of the village was damaged or destroyed.

The tornado was rated as an F-5 on the Fujita Scale; one of only two tornadoes in the history of Wisconsin to achieve such a rating.

The Barneveld tornado claimed nine lives, seven of them in one neighborhood.

The names of those who died:
Robert Arneson
Matthew Aschliman
Ralph Hammerly, Jr.
Kirk Holland
Bruce Simon
Cassandra Simon
Jill Simon
Elaine Slewitzke
James Slewitzke

The youngest victim to die 25 years ago was a 2-year-old boy. NBC15's Dana Brueck interviewed his mother, who says she still thinks of her son, Matthew, every day.

"If anyone has never lost a child you'll never know."

Sue Clerkin lives with the unimaginable loss every day.

"And it's not like the death of a parent," she says, "I thought that was the end of life, and then Matthew died and everything kind of changed, totally."

The afternoon of June 7th, 1984 Sue and her husband at the time, Charles Aschliman, were working in the yard of their home on Swiss Lane, on Barneveld's far east side.

"The day, it was very windy."

By nightfall, the wind would pick up over Barneveld with deadly force.

"I looked over my right shoulder and knew that he was dead."

"Our kids have, for some reason, always been afraid of thunder and lightning."

Their son Michael already was in bed with his parents when younger Matthew began to cry.

"I just told Charlie to move over, I got another one in here."

Within seconds, shortly before 1:00 AM, Sue sensed a problem.

"I could hear it coming."

"...just ran through the house... "

Charlie with Michael, Sue with 2-year-old Matthew in her arms...the family dashed toward the basement.

"And it knocked us down, and I felt a pinch in my finger."

"He never cried, never said a word," she says, "So then I kicked my feet out from behind me and rolled on my back, and that's when he gasped for air."

Under a black sky pouring down raindrops the size of quarters, the family headed to the fire station around the bend from their home.

"At that time I could tell when it lightninged, my finger was cut off and that right side of my body hurt."

Sue would spend several days in the hospital, getting some 200 stitches in her neck.

"I didn't know anybody died until I watched it on TV. I had no clue."

The flying debris that severed her finger, killed Matthew, whom she believes was an angel among them.

"I do believe that if he didn't cry and wake us up that we would've all died."

The Aschlimans re-built but eventually moved away from Swiss Lane.

"I lived my life around the weather for several years, several years."

Nowadays, Sue is re-married, a bar owner and mom to several other children.

"Time waits for no one. It doesn't matter what happens in your life, it just does not wait for no one."

But it helps ease the pain of the one who was lost.

"I think about him every day ... I think about what he'd look like, what he'd be doing."

"He saved our lives. He did."

Barneveld has grown the last 25 years - and victims of the tornado have grown up, changed by the disaster.

The tornado claimed 9 lives, from as young as 2-years-old to people in their 50s. The community has moved beyond the tragedy, but survivors still find their village is known for what it survived.

"You know they always said, Barneveld's protected by the mounds. We're never going to have a tornado here," Sue Clerkin says.

The morning of June 8th, 1984 proved what many believed about their village was a myth.

"Still to this day, every time I go to Barneveld, it's still windy, it's always windy there," Clerkin says.

Trevor Simon, known by many as TJ, cannot remember the day. He was short of his second birthday when the tornado killed his parents, Bruce and Jill, and his big sister, 8-year-old Cassie. A newspaper article after the disaster details Trevor's injuries. He was thrown three blocks from his family's home on Swiss Lane, then found along railroad tracks.

"They found me and then they recognized me 'cause you know, they knew my dad, knew me."

"One of the dead was Bruce Simon... "

35-year-old Bruce Simon was well known among first responders, having trained many of them.

"He seemed from what I'm told to be a pretty extraordinary person, you know, like he was a teacher, he was a nurse, EMT, in the air force."

Trevor says the stories about his family almost seem like fairy tales.

"I don't know. He just seemed too good to be true. I wish I could've gotten to know him but what can you do, you know."

Nowadays, Trevor lives in Green Bay. He grew up with his natural father's brother, Rick and his wife, Judy, in Watertown. He also has grown up in a wheelchair, paralyzed by the injuries he suffered as a toddler. But, a fan of wheelchair basketball, he says he's proud to share his story with his teammates - a story of survival.

"When I go out and say mine, they just kind of look at me with disbelief, like you're pulling my leg. And I have to say, just go look it up, you know."

If Barneveld's known by some for its windy days, it's also known for its resolve - to do what it promised after the tornado - not to give up, but to go on...

"It can either make you or break you, it can," Clerkin says.

A number of people say they still get nervous when severe weather heads their direction. They say they never will forget the tragedy of June 8th but they've also put it away, let it go for the families and the community itself.

_________________________________________________

By NBC15's Chris Woodard:

As the first news station on the scene that night, the images captured by NBC15 photographers are some of the most dramatic; showing just how desperate the search was to find and help any survivors.

"I still shake my head when I think of those scenes."

For Rick Fetherston, the horror is still fresh 25 years later. As an NBC15 News Anchor in 1984, he walked straight into a nightmare.

"The disaster here in Barneveld isn't just one story, it's many stories."

... stories of fear and loss that seemed never ending.

"I held my little baby like this and we spun around at least once or twice."

"I don't know, it just all happened so fast. Big crack of lightning come, the electricity all went off and next thing you know all the walls were falling in."

"It was shocking and it didn't compare to anything else so it was a powerful story from day one, people were shaken by it" said Fetherston.

Perhaps no one saw more horror that night than an NBC15 reporter.

"Jay Jones of our staff was the first news reporter on the scene that night" said Fetherston.

Clip from Jay Jones: "Rescue workers spent 3 hours digging the dead and injured out of the rubble, over 200 were hurt, 66 required hospitalization, 9 people died."

What Jones didn't tell viewers is how he spent hours not reporting, but trying to save lives.

"Jay, being an EMT, spent the first part of his time there actually assisting victims" said Fetherston.

"I mean he let us know how bad it really was."

For longtime NBC15 weatherman Elmer Childress, 25 years later the tornado is still hard to figure out. He says seemingly appearing out of nowhere.

"Even though I had spent years and years in Kansas in tornado alley I had never really seen anything like that" said Childress.

Today, NBC 15's studios are much different than they were back in '84. Then the entire station went off the air at 12:30 a.m., so even if Childress had been here when the tornado quickly developed, a few minutes after he'd left for the night, he wouldn't have been able to go on air and warn anyone.

"We just didn't have the communication back then that I guess we needed."

What they did have were cameras....

... to capture the horror...

... and the rebirth.

A part of history Barneveld will never forget, and a history cemented in the minds of those who witnessed it forever.

Shortly after the Barneveld tornado, Elmer Childress says the station made the decision to stay on the air later at night and they began the practice of staying on with live forecasts until weather threats were over.

Click HERE to read the summary on the tornado from the National Weather Service


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