Wedding and tornado: wild day for firefighters

Hugo and Becca Bumgardner. (Photo courtesy of Becca Bumgardner)

By Ed Kemmick

BAKER-Hugo and Becca Bumgardner were wed Saturday evening in Marmarth, N.D., 15 miles east of their home in Baker.

Like nine or 10 people on hand for the wedding, Hugo and Becca are members of the Baker Rural Fire Department. At the reception afterward, right after dinner, numerous pagers started going off, alerting them to one of the biggest disasters in the history of Baker.

“We had just finished eating,” Becca said, “and thank goodness we got through the meal, because we were up pretty much all through the night.”

They and numerous other first responders had plenty of work to do after an EF-3 tornado, matching the most severe tornadoes ever recorded in Montana, hit Baker shortly after 7 p.m. Saturday.

The storm destroyed six houses and damaged more than 50. No one was killed after the tornado touched down, but at least six people were reported to have been injured.

Becca said all the other members of the fire department at the wedding left immediately, as did some of the other guests. She and Hugo stayed in Marmarth for maybe another hour, catching up with some of the wedding guests, before racing back to Baker in her pickup truck.

The drive back to Baker, she said, “probably wasn’t your typical first moments alone, bride-and-groom style.”

She was on the phone with friends and relatives, including some cousins who lost their house, and they stopped several times to urge people driving toward Baker to stop and turn around, because there were reports of a possible second tornado on the way. Luckily, there wasn’t another.

When they got to town, Hugo went to the fire hall and Becca went home.

“I went to my house so I could get out of my wedding dress so I could get my gear on,” she said.

She spent the next three or four hours driving around with the assistant fire chief and setting up portable lights to aid in the search for survivors. Becca said she left about midnight to drive back to Marmarth to fetch their dogs. They had brought them along because they had planned to spend the night in Marmarth.

Returning to Baker, she went to be with her relatives whose home was destroyed. Hugo worked until 3 or 4 a.m., looking for people possibly trapped under debris, then both of them went back to work at 7 a.m.

Hugo said that when the initial reports came in, nobody knew the extent of the damage in Baker.

“No clue,” he said. “But it was a tornado touchdown, so I figured it wasn’t good.”

Through the night, Hugo said, people kept coming up to him with the same basic message: “Congratulations. Sorry it couldn’t have been more fun.”

A friend who was at the wedding, Talon Stoddard, works for Griffith Engineering in Baker, so he headed back to town quickly in case people needed generators or heavy equipment.

Stoddard said they distributed five or six generators throughout the night.

“Everything we had we brought out and let them plug in whatever needed to keep their food from going bad,” he said.

Stoddard described the scenes of destruction in Baker as “jaw-dropping,” with demolished or severely damaged houses and debris everywhere, some of the debris still flying around.

“That’s the stuff you see on TV, not in your hometown,” he said.

If nothing else, Becca said, a lot of people have told her they won’t soon forget her wedding. And she was taking it in stride.

“Everybody feels so bad about the whole situation. But I tell everybody, ‘We got the marriage license signed.’ That’s what matters.”

This article originally appeared on Last Best News in Billings and is used here by permission. Ed Kemmick is the founding editor of Last Best News.