"I heard a strange sound and I went and looked and that was it. You could see it, the funnel itself was probably a block wide," said Ladysmith resident Ron Ludvic.
As it churned its way through the very heart of downtown on Monday, nothing was sacred. More than 90 buildings in a 14-block-long area were damaged or destroyed. The water tower tumbled, roofs went flying and townspeople took cover wherever they could find it.
"As the tornado passed over all the air got sucked out of the building and we got thrown into the kitchen and on the floor, and we just waited it out there," said Jeff Scanlon. "Basically I was just waiting to die."
Amazingly, no one in the rural northwestern Wisconsin town of 4,000 people was hurt.
"We went door to door and had to break into some places because we didn't get any answer," said police chief Norm Rozak.
There were 43 injuries, but none of them was serious. A big reason was that the Labor Day holiday left the hard-hit downtown business district unusually empty.
The tornado was part of a larger storm that swept across northern Wisconsin and generated at least one other tornado, which hit a rural area near Wausau, damaging a few houses in the lightly populated area.
About 14,000 customers lost power, but service was restored by midday Tuesday to all but 250 customers, said Xcel Energy spokesman Brian Elwood.
All five schools were closed Tuesday, and the first day of school in the neighboring town of Bruce was canceled because the Red Cross had set up an aid station there.
Gov. Scott McCallum toured Ladysmith Tuesday afternoon and declared Rusk County and neighboring Taylor County disaster areas, making the counties eligible for state assistance.
McCallum said he would ask President Bush to declare Rusk County a federal disaster once Federal Emergency Management Agency teams inspect the area.
Ladysmith Mayor Marty Reynolds estimated damages in the city at about $10 million.
The National Weather Service points out that this has been an unusually quiet tornado season. In an average year, by the first of September a thousand or so have touched down; this year it's been only half that many.
That statistic doesn't mean much in Ladysmith, where picking up the pieces from the holiday storm will be a painful process.
"You just feel awful because even though you know you can fix things, put things back the way they were, it will never be the same," said town resident Randy Lovely.