As a tornado swept through Iowa at twilight Friday, a Humboldt County sheriff dived into a ditch. Sue Wallace's dog kennel was torn up and swept away. A photo of Marina Meier's 5-year-old daughter blew across town, and a local park was strewn with a mattress, a kitchen sink, and a toilet. Men's overalls dangled from a tree.
Yet the real tale in the town of 124 may not be of 30 homes destroyed or the moment a 1-year-old girl, thought missing, was found.
Instead, the story that lasts may be how a small siren saved Bradgate, giving residents a few minutes' warning - and how, in the aftermath, volunteers poured in, a swath of the Midwest converging in a testament to resilience and an unflagging will to rebuild.
More than 400 volunteers came within 15 hours, coming all the way from Minnesota with chain saws, food, and offers of a warm place to stay. Fifty inmates from the state prison saw the devastation on TV and told the warden they wanted to help.
The storm, of course, was devastating. In Tornado Alley, which stretches from Texas to Oklahoma and Kansas to Iowa, air masses collide every spring, and the path is a highway for storms.
This time, severe weather also hit other parts of the Midwest, notably Michigan, where winds were clocked at 99 miles an hour. In the western part of the state, three inches of rain - the equivalent of three feet of snow - fell in 45 minutes, and lightning sent buildings up in flames. As far away as West Virginia, gusts swept in at 80 miles an hour.
Hundreds of thousands lost power, from Iowa to Pennsylvania.
In Bradgate and nearby Rolfe, 15 people were hurt, though most had no more than cuts, bruises, and broken bones. Sheriff Dean Kruger, the man who dived into a ditch as a half-mile wall of clouds rushed toward him, ordered the sirens to sound seconds before the windows of his SUV shattered, according to published reports. As he ran for cover, a two-by-four slammed into his leg.
When Gov. Tom Vilsack toured Bradgate, he said he'd never seen a community so devastated. And at Ms. Meier's house - what was left of it - roller skates, dolls, and Christmas stockings were scattered across the basement; even the foundation was shattered. The photo of her 5-year-old that blew across town "might be the only picture we have of her now," she said, standing by the heap of her home, sunburnt and coated in sawdust and dirt. "I guess we're starting over."
This weekend, volunteers were cutting down trees and stacking metal debris to be carted away. Ms. Wallace's dog was safe. And the Boy Scouts of Troop 108 were grateful for Connie Koob, the woman in that first house with lights on who'd welcomed them in as the storm swept over the golf course and graveyard. Having no idea how far they were from Bradgate, the boys and their three leaders had "all hurried up and got into town," 12-year-old Adam Weeks told the Register.
At Ms. Koob's house, the boys called their parents right away.
Governor Vilsack admired the city's strength on Saturday, Bradgate's resilience and its plan to rebuild.
At least one thing in town doesn't need to be rebuilt. Atop Bradgate's fire station, the red warning siren was dented, Sheriff's Deputy Brian Ricklefs told the Register - but still standing. "That little whistle probably saved a lot of lives."
• Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.