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Rescuers constantly search for survivors Volunteers leave little unturned

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Wednesday, May 9, 2007, at 1:35 a.m.
  • Updated Thursday, Jan. 24, 2008, at 5:15 p.m.

— As Capt. Martin Gray of the Topeka Fire Department searched through the debris that was all that was left of Greensburg, he found three clocks frozen in time. They read "9:50": the time the deadly tornado struck here Friday night.

While officials said Tuesday that everyone in town appeared to be accounted for, search teams continued to wade through debris, looking for survivors or other victims in a death toll that had already reached 10 in Friday's tornado outbreak.

Another person died in a Sunday tornado in Ottawa County.

Early Tuesday, the storm claimed a 12th victim. Macksville police Officer Robert "Tim" Buckman, 46, died at Via Christi Regional Medical Center-St. Francis Campus, hospital officials announced.

Later, during a morning news briefing, Greensburg City Administrator Steve Hewitt released the names of three more who had been found dead.

They are:

• Evelyn Kelly, 75, of Greensburg.

• Sarah Tackett, 72, of Greensburg.

• Richard J. Fry, 62, of Albuquerque.

Part of the searchers' grim task Tuesday was looking for possible traces of human remains in piles of debris, said Capt. John Arnold of the Lincoln, Neb., Fire Department.

Searchers said they would rather make the discoveries themselves than risk having a family hunting for possessions encounter something.

"As much debris as there is, you can miss something," Arnold said.

The teams were being told to watch out for hazardous chemicals, such as the ones that can seep out of destroyed electrical transformers and downed power lines. They were told to be vigilant about washing their hands, but the biggest hazards come from the germs stirred up by disaster.

Searchers said it was possible for someone to survive for several days trapped in debris.

"In my gut I think we've found everybody," Greensburg Mayor Lonnie McCollum said. "But we're not going to stop looking until we are sure."

By 2 p.m., Topeka Deputy Chief David Sterbenz announced that they knew of no one else missing.

"We're looking, but it's not like they're out there and we're not telling you," Sterbenz, said. "The fact is we don't have a name. If we have a name of anyone missing, we will search for them."

Emergency crews came from as far away as California and Florida to assist in the search, which continued throughout the afternoon.

As Topeka fire Capt. Gray passed a yard, he noticed some glass and plaster walls, stacked like pancakes. Gray crawled on his hands and knees to peer under the walls to see if anyone may have been trapped underneath.

Wearing protective helmets and carrying flashlights, crews walked through debris, systematically going from block to block, covering a grid of the town, in what they called a "surface search."

When the team stumbled on piles covering a confined space, they'd try to clear it if they could. Otherwise, they marked the spot for a search dog.

A yellow lab named Kachi pranced up with his handler to a lot where the storm swept away a house, leaving piles of debris the size of cars. The handler, wearing a hard hat and knee pads, directed Kachi with voice and hand commands.

The dog hopped and trotted through the debris and sand piles, trained to bark when he detects a human scent. Kachi panted and wagged his tail as he moved, the loose skin on his nose wiggling as he sniffed the air.

Kachi went to a house missing much of the second floor. The walls that remained were buckling and sagging. The dog trotted to the back of the house, then came back out. With the search over, the handler poured water from a bottle into her cupped hand to let Kachi lap up a drink.

Search dogs sometimes wear little boots over their paws to protect them from nails and other sharp objects strewn over the landscape. But Kachi went bare-pawed over the rugged terrain, not letting out a yelp.

Searchers also saw signs of hope.

At one street corner, they passed a row of downed cedar trees. On the top of the pile lay a sign:

"Future home of the Friesens."

Contributing: Stan Finger of The Eagle

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