April 22, 2011

Hoisington recalls April 2001 twister

HOISINGTON — During his time in law enforcement, Dan Simpson chased plenty of storms.

HOISINGTON — During his time in law enforcement, Dan Simpson chased plenty of storms.

His job required a certain bravado, and Simpson never much considered the danger of tailing tornadoes. Though he ruined a few patrol cars while being pounded by hail and gusty winds, Simpson felt mostly safe remaining in the wake of the storms.

So it was odd when Simpson got nervous about the gray clouds overhead on the evening of Saturday, April 21, 2001. He and his wife, Char, now 71, were driving from Great Bend back home to Hoisington.

"I had this gut feeling," said Simpson, now 79. "It just didn't feel right."

At home Char noticed a couple dozen purple martins start to flutter above their birdhouses mounted on 20-foot poles in the couple's backyard — something she'd never seen before.

"It's like they knew," she said.

A few minutes later, the birds had vanished.

At this point, Dan was noticeably concerned. He put their two Welsh corgis into the basement. He figured the cats would be easier to carry if they had to quickly take shelter.

Unable to find a local weather report on television, Dan went outside once more to look at the weather. Clouds were churning, but the muggy air was still, absent much wind. The sky was overcast with light gray clouds.

Then the lights went out. Dan and Char headed for the basement. They didn't even have time to get the cats.

While in the unfinished basement, they heard what sounded like large hail. Dan went back up to get the cats. After climbing half the stairs, he saw the east wall of the house lift like a curtain. Then, the north wall disappeared.

He immediately retreated downstairs.

"The house is gone! The house is gone!" Dan yelled to his wife.

They crouched in the corner as the floor overhead slammed up and down off the basement foundation.

They heard the house being torn apart, though the floor remained mostly intact, protecting the basement. For about 30 seconds, it felt and sounded as if they were inside a huge vacuum.

Later, the National Weather Service would tell the Simpsons they experienced those sensations because they were in the vortex of the 263 mph tornado.

Then it immediately went quiet, save the broken water line, which was spurting water into the basement.

The couple trudged up the staircase, stepping over the debris that had made its way toward the basement.

"I'll never forget the feeling when I saw absolutely nothing left," Dan said. "It deflated me."

Their home was destroyed along with two homes they owned across the street.

Though it was dark outside — by this time it was past 9 p.m. —they could see the F-4 twister riding away in the distance from Hoisington.

The Simpsons had lived in their three-bedroom ranch home since their wedding in 1985. One of the homes they owned across the street was Char's mother's home, her childhood home, stocked full of antiques and collectibles.

The tornado injured 20 people and killed one, 69-year-old Gerald Tauscher. His wife, who took cover in the basement, later said that he was waiting to take cover until he heard sirens.

But the alarm never sounded after high winds killed the town's electricity.

In all, the tornado destroyed about 200 homes, while 85 sustained major damage and 200 more had minor damage.

The twister collapsed the Dairy Queen, threw dozens of cars across town, stripped the roof off the hospital and pulled a roof off the high school while leveling a classroom wall.

Today, the Dairy Queen, grocery store and several other businesses have been rebuilt. The repaired high school and hospital continue to operate, and little of the destruction is evident today; many houses have been rebuilt or replaced with modular homes.

On the night the twister struck, the Simpsons had surveyed the damage and checked on neighbors, then made their way to the city building where people were gathering. A volunteer connected the couple with a Great Bend veterinarian who agreed to board their two dogs — the two cats were later found alive and the vet told the couple they would spend the night at his home.

It was the first of many generous gifts the Simpsons remember. One of Dan's boyhood friends in Kansas City drove in a mobile home, where Dan and Char lived for six weeks. Another friend then housed them in a rental home for a month.

"People are so great at times like this," Dan said.

The tornado destroyed everything, including two vehicles, in the Simpsons' homes. Dan said the clothes they were wearing were the only items they walked away with that night.

Though losing their nest egg was financially and emotionally tolling, the two came away with a new perspective.

"You find out you don't really need a lot of the things you used to buy, especially when everything around you is going to hell," Char said.

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