Survivors tell of narrow escapes, unlikely discoveries

05/06/2007 1:01 AM

01/24/2008 5:15 PM

As the faint sun rose Saturday, bit by bit it revealed the enormity of the tornado damage.

Near what had been a convenience store on U.S. 54, a moving van lay on its side, spilling out a household of possessions -- a dining room set and golf clubs lay in a heap.

Outside the gutted convenience store, 46-year-old Brad Stauner had slept a few hours by his pickup truck with his German shepherd, Drako.

He recalled what happened the night before. He was heading east on U.S. 54 on his way to Wichita with his possessions packed under the camper shell.

Suddenly the winds blew hard and hail broke his windshield. A sign said 1 mile to Greensburg.

He pulled under the convenience store awning for cover, looked over and saw two elderly women huddled in a car. He held his hands up as if to say to them, "What's going on?"

He hurried into the store, where a clerk told him a storm was headed right at Greensburg.

As he ushered the older women out of their car and into the store, he looked for the best shelter.

He found a walk-in cooler and told himself that would be the most sturdy place. As he and about 10 other people took refuge there, he kept kicking the door open, fearing it would shut, locking them in. Suddenly his ears popped and the door slammed shut.

The wind roared, then it got quiet. Then it got the loudest.

"The cooler saved our lives," Stauner said the next morning when the light revealed that the cooler had all but collapsed.

Drako rode out the storm in the floorboard of the truck.

Thinking about the night before, Stauner said, "I'm telling you, man, you would not believe it. You would not believe it."

His camper shell had exploded and some of his belongings apparently blew away. But a prized custom guitar remained in its case, dry, unscathed.

Around 7:30 Saturday morning, about 21 Wichita and Sedgwick County firefighters were waiting by their trucks outside the convenience store -- waiting to search house-to-house for bodies or survivors.

At one point, several of them realized that they had been standing in what looked like blood, smeared across the pavement. They carefully stepped around it.

Minutes later they broke into teams and went street by street, climbing over debris that bristled with exposed nails.

There were so many house-size heaps of debris, one firefighter said, "I don't know where to start."

"Look for the obvious," said Sedgwick County Deputy Chief Rick Brazill. "Stuff like this bed, where people may be at. Somebody could be in this stuff anywhere.

"Look, here's a pair of shoes."

He picked up a mangled street sign -- Spruce.

All the while the wind never stopped gusting, making twisted metal whine, squeak and rattle.

Then around 7:50, one Wichita fire crew stumbled upon a man's body in a pile of what had been part of a house.

Nearby, neighbors tried to salvage precious possessions.

Charles Andress, 75, stood outside a wrecked two-story house where he has lived since 1972. The house had been there since 1903.

He had taken refuge in the basement.

"Everything in the basement is all right," he said. But aboveground, it's gone.

"I don't see how it could be repaired," he said.

He smiled when he saw that his father's old wooden trunk had survived. But his mouth pinched when he noticed that he had lost his collection of circus memorabilia.

Down the street, an ambulance had pulled up to remove the body.

Nearby, others sifted through the rubble of their homes.

Ann Dixson showed where she and her husband, Bob, had huddled in the basement of their three-story home, built in 1912. They had 20 minutes of warning, she said -- with blaring tornado sirens and TV and radio reports about the approaching storm.

They decided the middle of the basement would be safest.

At first, they heard hail. It "sounded like bowling balls hitting," she said. "Then all of a sudden we heard this roar. You could hear parts of the house going... bit by bit." After the storm stopped, she realized that two massive concrete columns had fallen within inches of them.

As she stared into the now-open basement, behind her someone said, "Mom."

She turned around and half cried as she exclaimed, "Oh! That's their wedding dresses."

Her daughters stood before her holding the dresses and managing to smile.

The dresses were a little stained -- but intact.

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