WINDSOR, Colo. — A large tornado skipped through several northern Colorado towns on Thursday, destroying dozens of homes, flipping tractor-trailers and freight rail cars, and killing at least one person.
The National Weather Service said the tornado touched down just before noon near Platteville, about 50 miles north of Denver. Over the next hour, it moved northward past several towns along 35-mile-long track toward Wyoming.
In Windsor, Colo., a farming town of 16,000 that was hardest hit, dazed residents retrieved what they could from their homes.
"I didn't want to see this. That's for sure," 41-year-old Windsor resident Alexander Martinez said while staring at a staircase, balcony, and personal belongings from his apartment that ended up in his front yard. The apartment's roof and a front wall had been torn away.
Nine people were hospitalized with various injuries at the Medical Center of the Rockies in Loveland, said spokesman Alex Stuessie. In Greeley, four people were treated for minor injuries at North Colorado Medical Center, said administrative representative Laurie Hamit.
Pete Ambrose, a caretaker at the campground outside Greeley, said he hid in a cinderblock restroom when he saw the twister approaching. A frightened camper who tried to outrun the storm in an RV was killed.
"I yelled at him to come with me and he tried to drive off," a despondent Ambrose said after emerging from his shelter, a cinderblock restroom.
The camper lay dead in the front seat of his RV. The rear half of the vehicle rested about 100 feet away. Weld County officials confirmed the man was killed but did not release his name.
"My house is gone," said Ambrose. "I lost my dog. I lost my cats. I lost my camper. I lost everything."
Crews removed downed power lines and poles from Windsor's streets Thursday evening and bulldozers cleared debris.
Several minor tornadoes were reported in northern Colorado on Thursday, the National Weather Service said. Meteorologist Jim Kalina said two or three major storm cells affected the area and that the weather service was trying to confirm how many tornados touched down.
Video footage of the large tornado showed a dark gray funnel perhaps a quarter-mile wide accompanied by heavy hail and rain.
Richard Dykstra, 65, was in his Windsor pest-control office with six other people when it began to hail and the roof began to slide off the building. "We had about 90 seconds, but we managed to get into the basement," Dykstra said.
He said he then ran to a day care center where his grandson was. No children were hurt, and they were herded into a vault at a nearby bank until the storm system cleared.
"It passed right over us like a big, white monster," said Thomas Coupe, 87, of Windsor.
The tornado overturned 15 railroad cars and destroyed a lumber car on the Great Western Railway of Colorado, said Mike Ogburn, managing director of Denver-based Omnitrax Inc., which manages the railroad. Fourteen of the overturned cars were tankers but they were empty.
All of northeastern Colorado was under a tornado watch through Thursday night, the National Weather Service said.
About 130 people waited at a Red Cross shelter downtown for friends to pick them up or evacuation orders to expire, but the shelter was moving to a nearby fairgrounds because of a lack of power. A second shelter opened at an events center in Loveland.
Gov. Bill Ritter declared a state of emergency for Weld County and toured the area. He said he talked to the Federal Emergency Management Agency about possible assistance.
Area police departments sent officers to patrol affected neighborhoods and deter looters, said Windsor Police Chief John Michaels.
Some 60,000 customers lost power in the area, but power was later restored to all but 15,000 of them, according to XCel energy. The company said it lost two large transmission lines and about 200 utility poles, and that it responding to several gas leaks at homes near Windsor.
The National Weather Service in Cheyenne, Wyo., was trying to verify whether a tornado touched down in Laramie, where a storm packing strong winds damaged several buildings and overturned vehicles Thursday afternoon. There were no reported injuries from the storm.
Meteorologist John Griffith said the agency would inspect the damage Friday before determining whether a tornado touched down.
"Indicators are very strongly in favor of it being a tornado, but normally we don't confirm yes or no until we send an inspection team to survey the damage," he said.
The storm damaged an apartment building and at least one house on the eastern edge of town, said Commander Dale Stalder of the Laramie Police Department.
On its Web site, the Wyoming Department of Transportation Web posted video showing a tractor trailer on its side and a boat that apparently had been blown off of a flatbed trailer on the Interstate 80.
Rocky Mountain Power said 7,300 customers in the Laramie area were without power Thursday evening.
Several tornadoes also touched down in western Kansas on Thursday, said Scott Mentzer, a National Weather Service meterologist in Goodland, Kan.
He said a few barely touched down, but that a couple moved along 30 to 50 miles on the ground in Sheridan and Decatur counties.
The tornadoes damaged several buildings, but there were no reported injuries.
About 100 people have died in U.S. twisters so far this year, the worst toll in a decade, according to the National Weather Service, and the danger has not passed yet. Tornado season typically peaks in the spring and early summer, then again in the late fall.
This could also prove to be the busiest tornado season on record in the United States, though the final figure on the number of twisters is not yet in.
Associated Press writers Steven K. Paulson in Gilcrest, Catherine Tsai in Windsor, Don Mitchell in Denver, Mead Gruver in Laramie, Wyo., and Matt Joyce in Cheyenne, Wyo., contributed to this report.