Special Reports

May 27, 2007

Greensburg residents held tight as neighbors, rescuers searched, helped

For Norman and Beverly Volz, May 4 began as a day of quiet celebration. Bev had just finished seven weeks of breast cancer radiation and felt optimistic. At their home that Friday night, Bev, 52, and Norman, 54, held hands and smiled at each other. They had been married 33 years.

For Norman and Beverly Volz, May 4 began as a day of quiet celebration. Bev had just finished seven weeks of breast cancer radiation and felt optimistic. At their home that Friday night, Bev, 52, and Norman, 54, held hands and smiled at each other. They had been married 33 years.

When tornado sirens blared at about 9:15 p.m., Norman thought the storm would miss the town. Then the power went out, and he couldn't open the front door, the wind was so strong. "Hallway!" he blurted to Bev, and her father, Max McColm, and they rushed to huddle there.

Moments later, a piece of metal about 15 feet long and a foot wide, possibly a guardrail, tore into the house. Norman would later blame the "missile" for their injuries.

Across the town of 1,400 people, nearly 1,000 homes exploded.

What the Greensburg disaster would show is that when people like Bev desperately needed help, often the first rescuers were fellow neighbors. The professionally trained and equipped rescue crews who rushed in from surrounding towns would depend heavily on civilians in the first hours after the tornado blasted through.

There were other lessons as well: about the importance of setting up command posts for rescues, about the need to enlist ambulance drivers, about the limitations of cell phones and other communication systems; about the difficulty of accounting for missing people.

The coming storm

Patsy and Joel Schmidt live 8 miles south of Greensburg. The night of May 4, Patsy, a nurse at a Greensburg clinic, heard warning after warning about the weather. Joel was farming north of town. Patsy's "barn cat," which never came up to the house, clung to the back door.

When Patsy, 61, realized the storm was marching closer to Greensburg, her heart started pounding. Her 36-year-old niece, Kim Jacobitz of Nelson, Neb., had arrived in Greensburg that evening with her 2-year-old son and 5-month-old daughter. Kim, who was staying with her mother, is like a daughter to Patsy.

Three miles west of town, on U.S. 54, Ray Stegman, a 43-year-old former Kiowa County sheriff, watched the approaching storm system in his role as storm spotter and part-time county emergency management coordinator.

Stegman monitored the color radar display on his cell phone. After he saw two distinctive hook patterns cross the county line, he radioed 24-year-old Alicia Daniels, a dispatcher in the Kiowa County sheriff's office in Greensburg, and told her to set off the tornado sirens. That was about 9:15 p.m. A few minutes later, he called back to emphasize something:

Leave the sirens on.

On the south side of town, Mabel Schmidt, a retired nurse with braided, silver-gray hair, heard a siren a half block from her home. In the past, the siren would stick sometimes, sounding after a threat had passed. She waited and listened. The siren didn't stop.

Visiting was her older brother, Vernon Guengerich, and staying with her was her 87-year-old sister, Verda Strang.

Verda, a tiny woman, grew anxious. The house didn't have a basement.

"We've got to go, Mabel," Verda said. "We've got to go somewhere."

Because Mabel was on the Fellowship Committee at the Greensburg Mennonite Church, she had a key to the building, which had a full basement. The church sat a mile and half north of her home. The three headed that way in Mabel's Dodge Caravan, along with Mabel's pug, Snoopy.

In the Youth Room of the church basement, they settled in on a couch.

They were the only people taking shelter there.

Seeking shelter

At 8:40 that night, at 522 S. Pine, on the southeast side of town, Kim -- the 36-year-old who was visiting at her mother's with her two young children -- talked to her husband, Terre, in Nebraska.

"You're not going to believe -- 83 degrees and it's sunny out here, and we're in a tornado watch," Kim told him.

"It will be OK," he said.

When the sirens sounded, Kim and her mother, 56-year-old Brenda Cradick, took the two children to a spot between old fruit jar shelves in the 70-year-old cellar under the house.

Kim sat cross-legged between the cracked walls, breast-feeding 5-month-old Emily.

At the sheriff's emergency dispatch office near the courthouse, 22-year-old dispatcher Toshia Bertram started getting calls from residents wondering if the sirens were for a fire or a tornado. The sirens sound a solid pitch for a tornado, a variable pitch for a fire.

Kiowa County Sheriff Galen Marble, a former senior agent with the Kansas Bureau of Investigation, came into his office to monitor the storm. In the basement at the sheriff's office, a couple dozen townspeople and a dozen jail inmates took shelter.

Watching the sky

About 18 miles west of Greensburg, Russ Smith, chief of the Ford County Fire and EMS Department, scanned the west side of the storm from Bucklin. Tracking storms is part of Smith's job. The idea is to put emergency crews in place to respond before a storm hits.

Looking east, Smith saw a lightning flash that for an instant illuminated a wall of clouds extending to the ground. The shape -- mainly the extension to the ground -- seemed odd.

A few minutes after he glimpsed the strange formation, he heard a call from Ford County emergency dispatch with a brief message: Greensburg took a direct hit.

Smith waited a moment for clarification. Sometimes, initial reports can be exaggerated. He wondered: How bad was it hit?

After a brief hesitation, without more information, he started driving toward Greensburg with a rescue squad: a fire truck and three ambulances.

East of Mullinville and about four miles from Greensburg, he and the emergency vehicles had to stop because debris was falling. During the delay, he spotted a battered sedan coming from the direction of Greensburg. It looked as if someone had fired shotgun pellets into the metal. The windshield was shattered, the fenders battered. The young couple inside looked dazed.

'Here it comes'

In the old cellar under her mother's house on Pine Street, Kim's ears started popping. When the electricity abruptly went out, Kim's mother, Brenda, blurted out, "That can't be good."

Kim pulled baby Emily and 2-year-old Evan close to her. She and Brenda started praying out loud: "Our Father, who art in heaven...."

As they prayed, they heard clanging, banging, ripping, cracking outside.

"Here it comes," Brenda said anxiously. She had been afraid that the cracked basement walls would come down on them.

Brenda threw a blanket on top of Evan and lay stomach-first over him, as a shield, facing Kim. Kim put Emily on a pillow and lay over her, afraid she might smother her but determined to cushion her from the fury above.

And then the house blew away.

Debris and rain poured in on them.

In the rubble, Kim said to Brenda: "Are you alive?"

Brenda responded: "Are you OK?"

The children cried.

Brenda wriggled free, but Kim said she couldn't move. A slab of concrete wall lay atop her.

Brenda started yelling for help.

Kim pulled her right foot out of a shoe wedged in the rubble, eased her right leg up and started squirming on her right side. The baby lay next to her on the pillow, screaming, drenched from the rain, splattered with dirt and mortar. Later, they would find only a small cut on the baby's head.

The wall that caved in was mixed blessing. Although it came down on Kim, she thought it shielded them from other debris and kept them from being sucked up.

Kim managed to get up on her knees, and then she felt pain. Her pelvis was fractured in four places. Her bladder had been compressed. Under her thick and matted dark brown hair was a cut that would require six staples.

Brenda tried to call 911 on her cell phone. The call wouldn't go through.

When the wind stopped, Brenda yelled out.

"We have babies over here!"

Soon they saw flashlights and could hear two men and a woman, at least one of them a neighbor, approaching.

The men stepped down into the debris and a calm voice said to Kim: "Honey, you're doing just fine. We're going to get you out of here."

In severe pain, she rested her head on one man's knee.

She told them she thought her pelvis or legs were broken, that she couldn't move from the waist down. They found a large plank and gently helped her to lie on it, then strapped her to the board.

The woman told her she'd looked over the children; they appeared to be in good shape.

Someone brought in a pickup, and the men placed her and the improvised stretcher in the back and put blankets over her.

They took her several blocks to the parking lot outside the wrecked Dillons grocery store, where emergency workers had set up a triage center. Kim could hear emergency workers calling out medical-condition codes as they quickly assessed the injured being brought in. Code red for critical condition, code green for superficial injuries....

Later, in the ambulance that took her to the Pratt hospital, 30 miles east, she heard a worker call in on the radio and say she was code red.

The earliest response

In the first minutes after the tornado hit, as Smith headed with emergency vehicles from Ford County on the west, Mark McManaman led a rescue effort from the east.

McManaman, the Pratt County emergency and medical services administrator, encountered a delay at Haviland, about 10 miles east of Greensburg. High winds forced him to wait a few minutes. About that time, he could hear a young person yelling over a Kiowa County fire radio frequency: "We need help!"

When McManaman reached the east side of Greensburg on U.S. 54, which bisects the town, he stopped in the debris-strewn highway a few blocks east of the Dillons store.

In the darkness, he shined a spotlight, revealing a sea of debris.

He sent a rescue truck with four people to set up a triage center at the Dillons. The store was centrally located, with highway access; it was a natural place to assess the injured and load them into ambulances bound for hospitals in Pratt, Dodge City and Wichita. Greensburg's county hospital had been destroyed.

As Stegman, the storm spotter and emergency management coordinator, worked his way into town from the west, he noticed something comforting in the darkness -- a line of emergency-vehicle lights moving toward Greensburg.

Stegman and Jay Koehn, the Kiowa County and Greensburg fire chief, asked McManaman to take over as incident commander.

Stegman and Koehn were in a state of shock. Their town and all of its resources had been destroyed. They couldn't help being distracted by their concern over their own families.

McManaman, 50, was a logical choice to lead efforts. He had worked in emergency services for 26 years. His county was larger and had more resources.

But McManaman asked Koehn to stay with him in his Suburban cab and help direct efforts. McManaman didn't know the layout of Greensburg, so he needed Koehn's help directing rescue crews.

All electricity was out. It was dark. Street signs were gone. The town's only traffic light, at Main and U.S. 54, had been ripped away. So many buildings and landmarks had been flattened or blown away that even a lifelong resident needed help finding his way.

McManaman needed a map. He quickly found a basic Greensburg street grid in the regional phone book in his truck and handed it to Koehn.

As reports and addresses of the injured came over McManaman's emergency radio, Koehn would give him directions, and McManaman would relay that to rescue crews.

Main Street became a starting point. From there, rescuers would be directed a certain number of streets north or south and a certain number east or west. Sometimes, crews could get an ambulance or rescue truck down a street. Other times, because of debris, they had to walk.

On the west side, several rescuers had to carry a severely injured woman, in a rescue basket, about three blocks, winding around debris. It exhausted them.

As code-red injury reports mounted, McManaman called for more ambulances.

Already, a regional mutual aid system was sending ambulances and rescue crews from surrounding counties. State officials dispatched heavy-rescue crews from Wichita and Sedgwick County. Some emergency crews drove in from Oklahoma.

Radio communication

With a cell tower downed and land lines knocked out, communication was limited to emergency radios. A firefighter carried a hand-held radio from the east side to the west side so McManaman and Smith could converse from opposite ends of the town.

Around the same time, another command post, including law enforcement officials, was setting up at a Kansas Department of Transportation building on the town's east side.

So many concerned people, some worried about relatives in town, were walking up to ask McManaman questions, it threatened to interfere with his efforts to monitor radio traffic and direct rescues. He rolled up his window, and let them approach Koehn, on the passenger side.

From his training, McManaman knew that a command post can't effectively lead if it gets too close to the action. Incident commanders have to maintain an overall view and not get sidetracked.

Saving lives first

Within the first hour came the first reports of deaths. A truck service facility near the KDOT building would eventually become a morgue. Two bodies had been temporarily kept at a roadside bar.

Someone asked McManaman what rescuers should do if they found a body as they were trying to save people.

He told them to put an orange cone by the body, to mark it. The bodies could be removed later.

First, they had to save people.

They had to improvise.

All over town, residents used their vehicles, sometimes with shattered windshields and flat tires, to ferry the injured to the triage center.

In the first hour or two after the storm hit, a man approached Ford County sheriff's Capt. Bryan Burgess on the west side of town and asked: "What can I do to help these people?"

Burgess, who had driven his extended-cab truck to Greensburg, told the man: "Transport these people," and threw the man his truck keys.

Through the night, as Burgess helped with rescues, he saw his truck coming and going with injured people and evacuees.

Several hours later, when the pace had slowed, Burgess found his keys and truck at a command center, securely left by the volunteer. Burgess didn't know the man, never got to thank him.

There were plenty of ambulances but not always enough drivers. Normally, when an ambulance responds, one paramedic or medical technician treats a patient in the back of the ambulance while another worker drives. That night, there were often two seriously injured patients in the back of each ambulance. The paramedics had to stay in the back with the injured, so in some cases firefighters and others were drafted as ambulance drivers.

Many farmers from outside town had quickly brought in equipment to clear streets for emergency crews.

Calling in help

When the tornado hit, Koehn, the 49-year-old fire chief, had been returning to Greensburg from a fishing trip. Six miles west of town, debris rained down around him.

His family had an emergency radio in town. "Dad, we're all OK," they told him. "But the house is filling with gas; we can smell it." Get out, he ordered.

Even as he pulled up to the west side of town, it seemed as if tornadic winds were still spinning nearby.

He specifically called for help from Ford, Comanche and Pratt counties. But crews from many other counties came as well.

There's a camaraderie among fire and emergency officials in the region. Every few months, several of them meet for dinner in the town of Protection, southwest of Greensburg.

For Koehn, one of the hardest things was driving through town past 25 injured people, some with blood on their faces. He had to force himself not to stop and help them. If he had, he would have been committed to treating a relative few individuals. It would have kept him from setting up a command post from which many more people could be helped.

Looking at the wide damage, he thought hundreds of body bags would be needed.

In the truck cab where he and McManaman ran the command post, Koehn's mouth kept getting dry even though he drank water constantly. It was stress. At one point, he leaned back and closed his eyes, so he could focus his thoughts.

Victims stream in

At the battered sheriff's office in town, rattled residents streamed in after the tornado hit. One woman was upset because her infant had a knot on the head. Marble, the sheriff, looked over the baby, who seemed OK. He told the mother to keep the child awake until medical attention was available. A state trooper, one of many who responded, drove a car through debris on at least one flat tire so he could get the woman and the child to an EMS unit.

Some residents stumbled into the sheriff's office without shoes. Bertram, the dispatcher, gave one woman her sneakers.

Some changed into orange jail inmate jumpsuits and sandals so they could get out of wet clothes. Hours later, the inmates, who remained in the basement, were transferred to other jails.

Helping along the way

Patsy Schmidt, the nurse who lived eight miles south of Greensburg, knew people in town would need help.

She also felt desperate to reach 522 S. Pine, where her niece and the children were. But because of trees and wires in the roads, it took her an hour to reach the outskirts of Greensburg.

Walking south on Main, still wearing her nurse uniform, she heard someone say, "We need some help over here."

The voice led her to a woman being transported in a pickup. The woman was suffering from fractures and heavy bleeding and was drifting in and out of consciousness.

Patsy took off her pink jacket and bound the clean portion around a wound, to apply pressure. As she checked the woman's other injuries, she told a man to keep pressure on the wound.

The injured woman was Bev Volz, a woman Patsy had seen many times over the years. But in those intense moments, Patsy didn't recognize her.

Soon, paramedics took over treating Bev, and Patsy continued on her way. She never got to 522 Pine that night. On the way, someone told her that Kim had been rescued and that the babies were OK.

Later that night, Patsy's husband, Joel Schmidt, called with a question: "Have you seen Mom?" He and his brother were looking for her.

No one had seen Mabel Schmidt. The 82-year-old's house was gone.

Safe in church

What her relatives didn't know was that Mabel and her brother and sister had gone to the Mennonite Church basement and remained there. They were OK, but rubble in a stairwell blocked their exit.

At the church, now only a slab above ground, soaked ceiling tiles began to drop in the basement.

It was a long wait for daylight.

Vernon, who had lost a leg years before and relied on crutches, used his well-conditioned shoulders and arms to remove debris from the stairwell.

"Oh, don't move too much," Mabel cautioned.

The two cleared the way to the first landing, but the rest of the stairwell remained blocked. Still, they could see light and hear noises outside, possibly utility trucks.

"Hey!" they yelled, over and over.

Around 10 that morning, Ford County firefighter Justin Swank, 23, learned that someone might be trapped in the area around the church. Swank, who volunteers as a search dog handler, went there with his German shepherd, Blaze. The Greensburg disaster was the first time that the 16-month-old dog was being pressed into service.

He is trained to lead Swank to human scent.

Blaze went to a debris pile and, while glancing back at Swank, began to whine.

Near an opening in the debris, near what turned out to be the blocked staircase, Blaze started to descend. As workers cleared some rubble, they quickly found Mabel Schmidt and her brother and sister.

They had been trapped for about 12 hours.

Finding the missing

By 3 a.m., residents and fire and rescue crews had searched the town twice. Crews used spray paint to mark each smashed building they checked. They used so much, more cans had to be brought in from other towns.

But the debris piles were so massive. They couldn't check every pocket under the layers.

As the hours wore on, the searches became more and more methodical. Crews went house to house, street by street, quadrant by quadrant.

It's not clear why it took so long to find Mabel and her siblings in the church basement. Crews had checked the area. But only a slab remained there, and with debris over the stairwell, someone missed it.

It's important in any disaster to build a list of residents to determine who might be missing, authorities say. That night, law enforcement officers and Red Cross workers compiled lists of evacuees as they left town in private vehicles or the school buses bound for shelters.

But some residents fled before the tornado, and others left before checkpoints went up, making the accounting difficult.

Mourning the dead

When the long piece of metal and other debris tore into the house of Norman and Bev Volz, it left him with a broken kneecap and her and her father with severe injuries.

Norman heard Bev cry out. He and Bev talked back and forth in the rubble, but he later didn't remember what she said, other than that she was in pain. Maybe he blocked it out, he would say later.

He stumbled out of the house to get help.

Residents took Bev out on a door and put her in a pickup.

An ambulance took her to Dodge City, but Bev didn't survive.

After doctors told Norman that she had died, he turned to a friend and said: "What am I going to do without her?"

For 30 minutes, he cried hard.

Sitting in his office at Volz Oil Co. last week, Norman looked weary, still stunned. He smoked cigarette after cigarette.

But his eyes brightened and his voice turned emphatic when he noted that one thing remained untouched by the storm -- their wedding album.

Bev was 19 and Norman was 20 when they married in August 1973. They had met at Seward County Community College in Liberal.

Bev was "the brains" at the office.

A couple of well-fed cats sauntered in and out of the office last week. She loved those cats.

A longtime employee at Volz Oil, delivery man Larry Hoskins, 51, also died in the storm.

Norman's father-in-law remained unconscious.

Everyone suffered.

After the destruction

The state's count for the Greensburg area was 961 homes destroyed, another 105 homes with major damage, and only 67 with minor damage. One loss estimate, covering only insured damage: more than $153 million.

Early reports indicated that at least 16 people were in critical condition, and 50 were being treated at hospitals. As of Friday, one man remained in critical condition at Wichita's Via Christi Regional Medical Center-St. Francis Campus, and a woman remained in fair condition at Wichita's Wesley Medical Center. Hospitals in Pratt and Dodge City had released all tornado victims.

The Greensburg death toll reached 10 -- with another three killed by other tornadoes in the area that weekend -- but people said over and over that it was amazing that many more didn't died.

Residents and rescue officials credited the sirens and the long warning for saving perhaps hundreds of lives. Many people responded by hunkering down in Greensburg's many basements, although in some cases a basement didn't prevent fatal injuries.

The disaster showed that even stout buildings with tons of brick and cured lumber that had weathered storms for more than a century couldn't withstand the EF5 tornado's 205-mph winds.

The emergency response showed that crews could mobilize, converge, coordinate and evacuate the injured from a central location. And that in a widespread emergency, neighbors become the true first responders.

I think everybody did what they could," Norman said. "Every able-bodied resident was trying to help somebody, or looking for somebody to help."

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