Had Tornado Alley become a thing of the past? Meteorologists and weather researchers were asking that question as the 1980s came to a close. The last half of the decade had seen the number of tornadoes drop dramatically — even in Kansas.
"And most of those were weak ones," weather researcher Jon Davies said.
That all changed March 13, 1990.
A massive outbreak erupted in the heart of Tornado Alley, producing at least 60 tornadoes from Texas to Illinois.
One storm cell produced back-to-back F5 tornadoes near Wichita: one that tore through Hesston and another near Goessel that ranks among the strongest ever recorded.
It was, as Hesston survivor Margo Buscher put it, "an awful day."
The Hesston tornado, which the Wichita branch of the National Weather Service is highlighting as it observes Severe Weather Awareness Week in Kansas this week, also marked the dawn of a new era for tornadoes and the public's awareness of them.
"It was the first video-age tornado," said Mike Smith, president of WeatherData Inc., a Wichita-based private forecasting service and subsidiary of AccuWeather.
People with video cameras shot footage as the tornado approached and tore through Hesston, and that footage drew national attention.
For years afterwards, Russ Buller, Hesston's director of emergency services, would go to conferences around the country and hear, "You're from Hesston? Wow, you had that tornado!"
"We were known all over the country," Buller said.
"Tornadoes didn't just start in 1990, but for some reason, our tornado that day seemed to hit the mark with a lot of people."
More large tornadoes struck in the years that followed — including the April 26, 1991, tornado that ravaged Haysville, Wichita, McConnell Air Force Base and Andover.
Forecasters say the Hesston outbreak reawakened the public to the dangers of tornadoes and offers timeless lessons for the residents of Tornado Alley as another storm season looms.
Severe weather can develop quickly, Smith said, so people need to be alert and ready to seek shelter on short notice.
Hesston's residents heeded warnings about the approaching tornado and took cover, Smith said, and no one was killed in town.
That reaction wasn't a given, Smith said, considering it had been 11 years since a large tornado had hit a town of any size: Wichita Falls, Texas, in 1979.
"The Great Plains had gone a long time without any major tornadoes," Smith said.
Taking aim at Hesston
The Hesston tornado touched down at about 4:30 p.m. northeast of Pretty Prairie in Reno County and churned across the countryside between Haven and Yoder.
"It was the first real large tornado I saw," said Davies, who began tracking the thunderstorm near Medicine Lodge and photographed the tornado after it touched down. "It kind of knocked my socks off about how big it was and how fast it formed."
The tornado crossed the Arkansas River and hit the Fisher farmstead south of Burrton. Lucas Fisher, 6, was killed when the tornado slammed a tree into the chimney, knocking it into the basement, where the family had taken shelter.
The tornado then seemed to take aim on Hesston.
Hesston Mayor John Waltner was driving home from work in Newton on old U.S. 81. As he listened to radio reports of the tornado, he could see it in the distance.
It didn't look like a classic tornado, he said — just a big, black wall churning across the prairie.
"It was massive," Waltner said. "It was really an awesome thing — no question about it."
The mayor and tornado seemed to be "on a collision course," Waltner said.
"I thought it was going to miss the town," he said. "I wasn't seeing debris. And all of a sudden..."
A microburst developed in front of the tornado, pushing it a little to the right — taking it through the heart of the city instead of through the largest employer in town, Hay and Forage Industries.
At the Kropf Lumber Co. a few blocks away, Donnie Hostetler and Joe Detweiler had moved materials indoors to keep them from getting wet, then decided to see whether they could spot the tornado.
What they thought was just a big black cloud was the tornado bearing down on them.
"We never really saw the funnel... until the debris started falling all around us," Hostetler said. "Then we said, 'We probably ought to get inside.' "
The nearest door led to a small bathroom in the back of a storage building.
"We stayed there through it all," Hostetler said. "I never did hear the roar of the train or anything... it sounded like somebody threw a big shovelful of gravel against the garage door."
When it grew quiet again, they stepped outside — and were stunned by what they saw.
"Where that little bathroom was is about the only corner that wasn't damaged," Hostetler said.
More than 225 homes and 21 businesses in Hesston were damaged or destroyed. Damage estimates in Harvey County alone reached $25 million.
The tornado was on the ground for an hour, Davies said, traveling 48 miles before it lifted. At one point, it was 3/4 of a mile wide — though it had narrowed to about 2 1/2 blocks by the time it struck Hesston.
Weather researchers said it grew stronger just outside town as the base narrowed — much like a figure skater spinning faster when she draws her arms in.
Dean Alison stood on the front porch of his house 1 1/2 miles east of Hesston with his brother, Ben, and shot video as the tornado approached and struck the town.
"The one thing we thought of when we saw it pass through town was that there'd be dead people everywhere," Dean Alison said.
They raced to town after the tornado passed and were amazed to discover there were no deaths and few injuries.
Two F5 tornadoes
Even as the tornado was shredding the center of Hesston, another twister touched down just northeast of the city.
Research later showed that the two tornadoes traveled parallel to each other for about two miles before the second tornado intensified and choked off the first.
It quickly grew to F5 strength, the top ranking on the Fujita scale with winds estimated at more than 300 mph. It moved northeast into Marion County, where it killed 68-year-old Ruth Voth at her rural homestead.
The thunderstorm system produced tornadoes so close to each other that researchers initially suspected one tornado had been on the ground for 105 miles.
But two videos captured the Hesston and Goessel tornadoes on the ground at the same time, and closer study of the damage paths confirmed five separate tornadoes.
Tornado research pioneer Theodore Fujita, for whom the tornado strength scale is named, was so intrigued by the Hesston and Goessel tornadoes that he traveled from the University of Chicago to conduct his own damage surveys.
"The newly formed tornado was becoming stronger... and it was so close to the original tornado it pulled the original tornado into it," Davies said. "I don't know of any other case where that's been documented."
The Goessel tornado belongs in any discussion of the strongest tornadoes on record, weather researchers say.
So many people came to Hesston's aid after the tornado that the debris was cleared in two weeks. Visitors today would not be able to tell where the tornado struck, Buller said.
That day in the city's history rarely comes up in conversation. But that doesn't mean it's forgotten.
"It's always in the back of our minds — the ones that were there," Buller said. "You don't go through one of those and not have it become a part of you."