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Oakfield continues to rebuild and rejoice 25 years after devastating tornado

Published: Jul. 18, 2021 at 5:54 PM CDT
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OAKFIELD, Wis. (WBAY) - Exactly 25 years ago to the day Sunday, on July 18, 1996, an unforgettable tornado ripped through Fond du Lac county.

“My kindergarten classroom was totally destroyed,” Diane Bilitz, a teacher at St. Luke’s Lutheran Church during the tornado, said. “The walls were gone. The roof was gone. There were two cars upside down. A tragedy.”

It was a category F5 tornado. Reserved for storms of the highest intensity, with winds at one point estimated to be about 265 miles per hour.

Everyone in Oakfield survived but 12 were injured according to officials. They also labeled it the costliest tornado in state history. About $39.5 million in public and private property damage was a result of the severe storm.

RELATED: National Weather Service remembers Oakfield F5 tornado 25 years later

On that night at St. Luke’s Lutheran Church, an usher, a visiting seminarian student, and about five others hid in the basement as the eye of the storm passed over them, wrecking the building in the process.

“All of a sudden the lights went out and I held the door open so we could hear what was going on,” the usher, Lyle Collien, said. “It wasn’t long until the tornado was right over our heads I guess because it sucked the door right out of my hand. You had all this pressure on your head. It lasted for a short time. Then, everything seemed to quiet down.”

“When we came up and out, I looked out and all of the wreckage and piles of debris not to mention trees - all these mighty oaks - were everywhere,” Pastor Bill Finn, the visiting seminarian student and current pastor of Grace Evangelical Lutheran Church in Tecumseh, Michigan, said. “You looked around and I couldn’t see anybody. I found a cell phone and I called my mom and dad in Fond Du Lac and I said I don’t think there is anybody left. I think the whole town just got wiped out.”

It wasn’t.

The people of Oakfield would rebuild. Some in the St. Luke’s congregation said they became stronger than ever before.

“This day which could have just been a tragic, tragic day has turned into a day of rejoicing,” Bilitz emphasized.

We spoke with even more community members about the historic storm. To hear their full interviews, click below.

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