How a Mom and Son Who Survived the Winterset Tornado That Killed the Rest of Their Family Have Reclaimed Life
When a tornado headed straight for Kuri Bolger’s family home in 2022, she never envisioned she and her 8-year-old son would be the sole survivors from their family of five. A year after the unthinkable tragedy, they reflect on how everything has changed.
Tornadoes are not uncommon in the Midwest. In fact, the United States experiences an average of 1,000 tornadoes per year. But for Kuri Bolger, the tornado that she survived, but killed her family last year, was anything but ordinary.
Kuri lost her mom, husband and two young children in the March 5, 2022 Winterset tornado that left her parents’ Iowa home nothing more than a pile of rubble.
Out of the eight family members that sheltered together in the kitchen pantry when the tornado made contact, only she, her 8-year-old son Brysen, her younger brother Seth and her stepfather Raymond Bazley survived.
“When I knew it was true that they were OK, it gave me a sense of relief. But also sadness that life was completely different,” Kuri tells Inside Edition Digital.
Her husband Mike Bolger, mom Melissa “Mimi” Bazley, her 5-year-old daughter Kinlee, and 2-year-old son Owen were killed in the tornado.
More than a year on from what experts have called an exceptional event, Kuri and Brysen, now 9, are continuing on, navigating the unthinkable grief by living in honor of their family now passed.
“My mom was the strongest person. If it were the other way around and Mike made it and I did not, I would hope to God that he still enjoyed life and found things that made him happy and kept going. I would be so sad to see him just give up,” Kuri says. “So I just draw strength from them.”
The Day That Changed Everything for the Bolger Family
The Bolgers were looking forward to their trip to Iowa. Kuri’s parents and younger brother Seth had just moved into their new home just outside of Winterset, and Mike and the kids took the Friday, Mar. 4, 2022, off in order to spend more time with the extended family. Other extended family members from around the country had also planned to travel to the area that weekend, but they ended up dropping out for various reasons. Still, the Bolgers were excited to make the most of their time visiting their close relatives.
“We love being active and being outside,” Kuri explained. They spent the sunny afternoon outdoors, exploring the nearby woods, riding bikes along the trails and later driving the tractor around the yard. When they returned home that evening, they played board games as a family before turning in. “It was a beautiful day,” she recalled.
The following morning, Kuri and her mom worked out as the rest of the house started waking up. After breakfast and a slow morning around the home, they visited a nearby alpaca farm during a break in the rain.
“Owen got a little stuffed alpaca,” Kuri says. “And it was a really fun time.”
The family briefly considered making a visit to another relative’s home nearby, but decided against it and instead returned home just as the weather started to worsen.
A tornado watch had been issued for their county at 2:05 p.m., but the family didn’t think too much of it at the time.
Tornadoes are never unexpected, senior meteorologist Jon Erdman tells Inside Edition Digital. But the conditions that prefaced the tornado that headed toward the Bolger family that day made it “an exceptional event,” says Erdman, of The Weather Company, an IBM Business.
“Early March is not the time of year we expect tornadoes. We consider March more of a winter month up here,” he says. “Your snow blower is still in the garage, you’re worried about snow storms. Your mind isn’t really ready for severe tornadoes.”
False alarms – meaning tornado watches and warnings that do not manifest into tornadoes that impact people on the ground – happen frequently, Erdman says. About 75% of tornado warnings in the U.S. never manifest into tornadoes on the ground, according to a study published in the American Meteorological Society.
“Here in the Midwest, you have tornado warnings and you take cover all the time, but nothing ever comes of it,” Kuri explained.
And so her family went about their day. As Mike and Melissa, who Kuri’s kids fondly called “Mimi,” prepared a meal for the family, Kuri’s stepdad Raymond took a nap upstairs, and Kuri and her children played “keep the balloon in the air.”
All the while, they kept an eye on the heavy rain and wind gusts developing outside, and knew they would head to the middle of the house under a big staircase by the pantry to take shelter if necessary.
By 4:10 p.m., the tornado watch developed into a tornado warning, with a confirmed tornado on the ground spotted in a neighboring county. It was headed toward their home in Winterset.
Perhaps it was because of poor cell reception in the area, or the confirmed internal network glitch the National Weather Service experienced that day that led to a 7-minute delay in the disseminating of the warning, but Kuri says she and her family didn’t realize they were in danger until it was too late.
“Part of me felt like something could happen,” Kuri says, looking back on the day. “But no part of me thought that we wouldn’t be safe.”
Only 20 minutes later, their home was in the path of what would become Iowa’s first EF4 rated tornado in nearly a decade.
The Moment of Impact, and the Excruciating Hours After
Mike was the first to notice trees coming up from the backyard as he and Raymond watched the storm develop. The last thing Kuri remembers before the entire family dove into the pantry was her husband yelling, “Oh my God, there’s a tornado.”
Raymond was the last one in, and saw the home’s walls and windows start to come down as he closed the door behind him.
“I just remember the pressure in my ears,” Kuri says. “I didn’t hear anything, but it was like this enormous amount of pressure in my ears.”
The family of eight, all huddled together in a tight space, felt four massive shifts in their environment as they fought to keep falling items and furniture off their bodies. “I don’t know if we were up in the air or what,” Kuri recalls. “I don’t know exactly what all was on us, I guess it was the staircase.”
What felt like a lifetime later, the movement finally steadied. Kuri’s arm was pinned and she realized she had no feeling below her knee. She assumed her leg was gone.
“I don’t know how we all ended up where we ended up,” she says. “We all somewhat stayed together even though we got moved so far from the original spot.”
Pressed up behind her was her mom, Kuri recalls. Mimi was positioned with her chest against Kuri’s back and her arm hanging over Kuri’s left shoulder. Her phone remained in her hand as her chest rose and sank before she finally stopped breathing.
Across from her was her stepdad, and somewhere in the same general direction, Kuri heard Mike say words that will haunt her for the rest of her life.
“I heard my husband say, ‘Oh my God, I’m going to die,’” Kuri says through tears. “I just told him to hang on and that I loved him.”
Her young daughter Kinlee was trapped between her legs.
Just out of reach, Kuri could see her youngest son Owen in front of her. The 2-year-old’s mouth was hanging open and he had been crushed by debris. He made a noise before bubbles started coming out of his nose.
“I heard Brysen, and he said he was OK but his foot was stuck,” Kuri says. “He kept asking why he couldn’t hear his dad. At that moment, I knew I had to get help. I knew he was safe, and maybe if I could get somebody to come to us, maybe they could save him.”
Kuri’s younger brother Seth was seated in a steady position next to her with his legs crossed, allowing Brysen to grab onto his leg as the tornado made impact.
That may have been what saved Brysen, who later told his mom he was thrown into the air by the tornado. During the ordeal, the little boy’s legs flew out from behind him as he clutched onto Seth’s leg for dear life. Raymond had fought to hold a wall up in order to keep it from crushing Brysen.
Using the phone in her mom’s hand, Kuri reached with her nose and dialed 911. She called more than 40 times before she was finally able to get through to a dispatcher.
It was an excruciating three hours before help finally arrived.
“I kept trying to keep my little brother Seth calm because he didn’t know what was going on. [His] glasses kept falling off, and he was getting really frustrated about them falling off,” Kuri says.
Seth, 19 at the time, has Down syndrome. He lived with Raymond and Melissa, who often reminded him not to lose his glasses. “He needed to keep his glasses on because mom said he couldn’t lose his glasses,” Kuri says.
Kuri tried her best to reassure those in her family who were still alive that help was on the way and that they would be OK. But that was a message she wasn’t sure she believed in herself.
“I just thought, ‘We’re not going to get out of here.’ It felt like it was taking way too long,” she recalls. “I’m fully conscious, and I was afraid I didn’t know what was going to happen.”
The Rescue Effort
Madison County Sheriff Jason Barnes still recalls that day with shock and grief. “It was an extremely surreal afternoon,” he tells Inside Edition Digital.
The destruction left behind made the rescue effort all the more difficult.
The phone lines in the area were down, and all emergency calls were being rerouted to another county. After finally getting connected with a dispatcher, Kuri’s call was disconnected several times before she was finally told that help was on the way.
Her family’s home was the “only residence that involved an entrapment and extended rescue” in the aftermath of the tornado, the sheriff says. It no longer resembled a house at that point at all. Pieces of roofing, drywall, closet doors and insulation were piled on top of each other in a way that made the property appear more like a scrap yard. Fallen trees and destroyed furniture added to the chaos.
Buried somewhere underneath all of that was Kuri and her family.
“Eventually I heard voices, and just started screaming for them to come find us,” she says.
Body camera footage from the day captured the moment a rescuer heard their cries, but that marked only the beginning of their rescue. It took much longer for rescuers to chainsaw their way through the debris to reach them.
Owen and Kinlee were first to be pulled out of the rubble. “I closed my eyes when they pulled them out because I didn’t know what I was going to see and I was too afraid to see anything,” Kuri says.
Kuri was next to be pulled out. It took some creativity to free her trapped arm, and at one point, she thought rescuers were going to pull her arm off. She was then passed down a line of people on a board before being loaded into an all-terrain vehicle that brought her to the ambulance down the road.
“I just remember all the pain all at once,” Kuri says. She eventually learned she had broken her arm, leg and pelvis in the tornado.
But her focus was not on her injuries. “I kept asking them to tell me when Brysen got out safe. I needed to know he was out safe,” she says. “When they finally told me he was out and he was OK, that was a huge relief. To know, at least, I still had one of my family members still here.”
Owen, Kinlee, Mike and Mimi were killed in the Winterset tornado that swept through their home. Raymond, Seth, Kuri and Brysen survived. Brysen miraculously walked away from the wreckage with only a black eye and a sprained ankle.
Three other people, 64-year-old Rodney Clark, 40-year-old Jesse Theron Fischer and 72-year-old Cecilia Lloyd, were also killed in the tornado.
“It just doesn’t make sense for people to lose their lives and for other people, for a loss of words, just walk out,” Kuri says a year on from the tornado. “I don’t know. Doesn’t make a lot of sense.”
Returning to a Different Normal
When Kuri and Brysen finally returned to their family home in Blue Springs, Missouri, they knew life would never be the same.
Kuri had always dreamed of being a mom to a big family, and Mike shared the same vision.
They met while she was working at a local Mexican restaurant. Kuri was serving tables when Mike, who had just started working there to make money on the side, asked if she wanted to spend time together after their shift.
“We hung out and stayed together forever,” she laughs.
Kuri was initially nervous introducing him to her mom. Mimi was her best friend and Kuri was anxious to gain her mother’s approval. But they hit it off right away, and when Mimi pulled Kuri aside to let her know she really liked him, the rest was history.
“We had Brysen before we got married, so Brysen was in our wedding,” Kuris says. “It was really sweet.”
They spent the next several years filling their home with rambunctious kids, BMX trophies from Mike’s and Brysen’s shared hobby, and art projects Kinlee, the creative one of the lot, would often bring home from school.
“It was wild. Always. And I loved it that way,” Kuri recalls. “There was so much love in our family. So much. I think that’s why it hurts so much.”
Kuri lost her dad when she was 8 years old. To watch history repeat itself for her son has been excruciating. “It was the same for Brysen,” she says. Kuri, however, had her siblings to lean on through the grief. Brysen will not.
“It’s very hard, knowing that he did have those siblings that he was supposed to grow up with and have his dad by his side to teach him all the things I don’t know how to do,” she says. “My heart hurts for his heart.”
Brysen often asks his mom for more siblings, something she and Mike once discussed with great excitement. Owen was born with health complications, which made them hesitant to have another child right away.
“Just knowing we had three healthy kids was perfect. We were happy. I always wanted five kids, and Mike and I actually were like, ‘Maybe one more,’ but that didn’t happen and it was OK,” Kuri says. “Not being able to explain to [Brysen] why I’m not going to have more kids right now … sometimes he gets a little angry because of it.”
Kuri and Brysen briefly considered moving. But they looked around the cul-de-sac their home is located on and at the homes of all their friends, who have made a point of stopping by to go for a walk, share a meal or offer a hug, and decided to stay put. “We have such a great community,” she says. “They’re our family now.”
As Kuri and Brysen pulled into their driveway for the first time after the tornado and Kuri’s weeks-long hospital stay, they noticed three bald eagles circling their home, a rarity considering the birds often do not fly together. There was a bigger one and two eaglets, and they lingered for several minutes before flying away.
Guests later recalled spotting eagles around the church and cemetery on the day of Mike, Owen and Kinlee’s funeral.
On the day Inside Edition Digital met with Kuri and Brysen to learn about their unthinkable loss, three birds believed to be the same birds as before circled over the home.
“I was hoping for some signs because it was the first time we had come home and we didn’t have our family together,” she says. “It made me realize that maybe that was a sign. Maybe that was them saying, it’s going to be OK. You can keep going.”
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