Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Darkness and Devastation April 26, 1991

                                                             Photo Courtesy of Jon Davies

Tis' the season....tornado season that is. Today the national weather channel along with all our local meteorologists are telling us that tornadoes and at the very least severe storms and giant hail are likely. They didn't have to tell me. My migraine was way ahead of them as it hit me about 1 a.m. More than that though, David had a seizure yesterday followed by a long night of no sleep. Our bodies are telling us that there is a definite change in the atmosphere.

I am a Kansas girl and I have been watching and dodging tornadoes since the beginning. I know the feel, the smell and how the change affects kids, animals and the attitudes of adults. If you live anywhere in Tornado Alley, then you know what I am talking about.

Blessedly, while I have seen tornado's form (many times) and just as often seen the destructive aftermath of these uncharitable beasts, I have never actually been in one and pray that I never am. However, I have unknowingly followed one and pulled up literally moments after it had destroyed most of a town. This was April 26, 1991, the day Tornado Alley had an outbreak of 55 tornadoes, killing 22 and nearly destroying Andover, KS.

As I get older, some memories fade, but that day is ingrained in my memory forever.

I was young and things like weather had little affect on me. Life was busy and I was always in a rush, but from the moment I stepped outside that day, it felt weird. I went to work and the air felt heavy and still. The sun was  barely shining through what almost felt like an overcast mist. It was the high moisture content in the air causing astronomical humidity and an unstable atmosphere. I worked half a day that day and went to the beauty salon to get my early 90's girl perm. My hair was long and it took forever. Even inside of the air conditioned building, the cool air was no match for the high humidity and heavy air. I sat drenched in sweat as did everyone else in the place. It was uncomfortable and I remember feeling irritable and just wanting to jump up and leave, perm rods in my hair and all.

Once done with my hair, I remember walking to my car and feeling like the air was overwhelming and that I really couldn't catch my breath. Being an asthmatic I reached for my inhaler. It really didn't help.

I headed to my then boyfriends house as we were to meet there when he got off work. As I walked in, he handed me the phone. My mother was calling me and telling me that she had picked my son up from school (she was babysitting that night) and that I needed to keep an eye on the weather. Our local meteorologist Mike Smith (he has national fame now), had said we were really in for some bad storms. I half listened as any 20 something, who thinks they are invincible does and felt confident that I was fine and that IF there were storms, my son was safe in my moms basement.

The boyfriend and I had been dating a while now and he had decided that he wanted to introduce me to some of his close friends. So soon we were on our way......to Andover. Now mind you, in 1991....no one had cell phones. There was no instant information. Unless you were listening to the radio or watching tv, you didn't really know what was going on. However, the sky was beginning to look a bit ominous as we left and lightening flashes along with big claps of thunder were happening all around us. Heading east, we ran through a heavy down pour and then as we pulled out of it, we saw a huge wall of dust and debris that looked as if it was from sky to ground. It almost looked like smoke and as we drove and I watched it, I asked boyfriend what it was. The wind had picked up and he figured that is what it was. I decided to turn on the radio to our local station with the best weather, which was KFDI. The KFDI weather alert warning was going off and Dan Dillon said Sedgwick county was under a TORNADO WARNING! My heart nearly stopped as we both realized we were driving right next to the tornado!

Suddenly you could see cars stopped all along the side of the road. Boyfriend decided that we better do the same. We watched as the tornado continued on for several minutes and then was gone. He suddenly looked pale and shaky as he realized that the tornado had just made a path right where we were headed. We jumped into the car and began driving straight into the debris path that the tornado had left behind.

I sat there speechless as I saw trees uprooted, power lines down and debris of every kind scattered and strewn across the landscape. Then I saw something that literally gave me chills. There was a powder blue baby blanket that had been forced through the trunk of what was left of a tree. It was hanging out either side and I felt my whole body shudder.

As we continued to drive we were on the outskirts of Andover in a mostly farming area. The dirt had been drilled through, trees were stripped of bark, leaves and branches. Barns had no roofs. Cattle and horses were standing dazed or running crazed. It was beyond surreal. It was like nothing I had ever seen...even in a nightmare. Little did I know, the nightmare was just beginning.

We finally drove up to his friends house, they were just emerging from an outside, in ground storm shelter. They lived in a decades old farm house that looked to be untouched by the tornado. The yard was full of fencing, posts, kids toys and debris from goodness knows where, but the house was fine. However, their property had two out buildings. One was an old dilapidated barn which they were planning to take down. The other was a brand new Morton building which had just been put up to replace the old barn. Left standing was the old barn. The Morton building was twisted like a soda can. If only we had had cell phone camera's back then. It was literally unbelievable.

Immediately boy friend and I began picking up debris, feeling helpless as the family, still shaken from what they had just endured, tried to take in what their previously immaculate yard now looked like. As we worked, rumbles of thunder began to be heard in the distance. Then from out of nowhere, a strike of lightening came from the sky and hit somewhere very close by. There was a pop and sizzle and you could see sparks flying. Then within seconds the sky opened up. It was a down pour. In the time it took us to run 100 feet to the house, we were all soaked.

Through it all, they had not lost power.....even with the last lightening strike. We turned on tv and sat and watched as we saw what had hit Andover and McConnell Airforce Base. Again, there was no cellphones or instant pictures, so news crews were flying to the hit areas and grabbing up any pictures or video that bystanders might have. As the pictures slowly came in, the realization of what boyfriend and I had been driving right next to hit me. I called my mom to make sure that she and my son were okay. She was frantic wondering if I was okay. She begged me not to go anywhere until the storms were over and she reassured me that the storm had completely bypassed them. I was relieved that they were safe, but I was also in a state of bewilderment at all that was going on.

The storm raged on and suddenly the phone rang. The friends answered, hung up and immediately began rushing around.  Apparently they were a part of an emergency volunteer team in case something like this unthinkable disaster happened. They asked for a ride to the school bus barn as their cars had been in the Morton building for........safety. We all jumped into the car and headed towards town.

As we got closer, it became pitch black. There were no lights. All landmarks had been uprooted or destroyed by the tornado, so we had to drive slowly with only our vehicle lights to guide us. The rain continued to come down in sheets and everyone's nerves were on edge, praying we didn't come across electric lines or worse.

Finally we saw the big spot lights that had been set up in town. Search and rescue was on and traffic was at a stand still. News crews were everywhere, along with police, fire and rescue. The police were stopping cars as they were only allowing volunteers and rescue personnel into the town. The friend knew the cop and we were immediately directed to what used to be a parking lot. Now all that was left was rubble and debris. What the stores and shops once were, were no longer even remotely recognizable.

The friend and his wife jumped out saying a hasty good bye as they jumped in another vehicle that was taking them to where they needed to go. Boyfriend and I got out and just stood there looking around and wondering what to do from this point. It was crazy dark with spooky shadows from what little light there was. The rain was beginning to ease up and as the sound of the storm faded, another sound became more apparent. It was the sound of people crying out. It was the sound of suffering.

From all different directions you could hear cries of, "Help" and people yelling  "Over here". Sirens were blaring in the distance as people were being triaged and then rushed to the emergency rooms. People were rushing everywhere and I felt helpless. Then someone came up to us and asked if we were there to help. We both said "Yes," without thinking. He told us to go to the school where they were taking people who were now without homes. We headed over, again.....carefully making our way through the darkness and destruction.

Boyfriend and I ended up spending several hours there, talking to people, grabbing blankets and trying to reassure people that things would be okay. How do you reassure someone of that, when you yourself are not sure?

As the sun began to peak through the horizon, we were told we could leave. The light shown a sight that the darkness had hid. Andover was no longer a town. It was a pile of rubble and as rescue workers were still digging through pile after pile of bricks, mortar and glass, there was an eery early morning silence.

Boyfriend and I began the drive home. Neither of us spoke. There was simply nothing to say. What we had seen was what nightmares are made of.....but this was real. People lost homes, possessions and worst of all.....their lives. It had been a force of nature that no man could stop and at the time, the warnings of this impending storm were not sufficient.

Boyfriend and I never spoke of that night again. I never told my mom about the events of that night and only in the last few years have I really been able to think about it.

So yes, today....as the Weather Channel has us on high alert for another possible tornado outbreak, I think of that day 25 years ago, I remember and I pray that I never see anything like that again.

Be safe!



Anonymous said...

what a blog. sorry you went thru all that but it made for good ready. hope you stay safe today.

Donita said...

I just found this blog by accident. Love it! Great story. I used to live in Kansas so I the weather you are talking about. I hope history does not repeat itself. Thank you for sharing your life.

Anonymous said...

I liked your post but I hate tornados. They scare the sh*t out of me. Hope the central part of the country is safe today.