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Workers Scramble to Repair Cannery in Time for Harvest

July 26, 1996

OAKFIELD, Wis. (AP) _ Steve Cowles huddled in a cannery bathroom, peering through the darkened doorway as the twister spun past him, scattering trees, shredding warehouses and hurling truck trailers into the sky.

``I saw gravel and shingles from who knows what flying past me,″ he said. ``The power started flickering on and off and went off completely. Then came the shop doors.″

The mechanic and six co-workers watched stunned as machinery, tools and other debris flew through the air. The tornado spared their cramped hiding place but leveled much of the Friday Canning Co.

A week after the tornado plowed through this small town, workers are in a race against the clock to rebuild the factory in time for the harvest, which, fortunately for the cannery, is late this season because of a cool, wet spring.

If the harvest had not been delayed, there would have been up to 50 people in the factory when the tornado struck, Friday Canning supervisor Bob Riel said. As it was, 19 people were injured in the area. The delay also is giving the cannery time for repairs.

The first loads of corn from Illinois are due soon and company president Jim Gelhar says farmers are counting on him to process their crops. Wisconsin is one of the nation’s largest producers of canned vegetables.

The company hopes to resume partial operations in about three weeks.

``We’ve come a long way,″ Jeff Keplin, a labeler at the plant, said Wednesday. ``We have to, the corn’s ready and it’s got to go some place.″

The twister July 18 caused $12.5 million in damage to the cannery and $39.5 million to Oakfield, a town of about 1,000 near Fond du Lac, 50 miles northwest of Milwaukee.

More than 50 homes were destroyed. The twister leveled two churches, two schools, six businesses and 18 barns, and wiped out up to 500 acres of crops.

Riel stepped through puddles of beet juice and rotting, reeking vegetables as he pointed to piles of mangled metal and crushed cinder blocks, describing buildings that no longer exist.

Thirteen of 22 cannery buildings were wrecked. The other nine have at least minor damage.

Plant manager Don Golesh estimates that 12 million cans of vegetables were blown through the town or crushed under rubble. Residents are still finding vegetables in their houses.

Cannery employees and outside crews have been working around the clock to clear away hundreds of tons of debris and repair the factory, the town’s largest employer with up to 200 workers.

``We really are lucky the plant survived it quite well,″ Riel said. ``Nothing can withstand that type of wind, not even wood and steel buildings.″

Laughing nervously, Riel recounted stories he heard of 15- to 20-foot steel beams being twisted like pretzels and tossed blocks away. Sheets of tin remain wrapped around tree limbs like ribbon.

``I took a whole roll of pictures of stuff you wouldn’t believe.″

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