2005: The night Udall died

Editor’s note: Story originally published in the Wichita Eagle on May 22, 2005

UDALL – The images are so powerful that Jerrold Hoffman reacts to each as if someone just delivered a sucker punch to his solar plexus.

"Oh," he groans as a color photo of shattered homes flashes onto the screen, splintered wood scattered across soggy soil.

"Oh, my . . ." he blurts at what's left of the brick schoolhouse, reduced to little more than a foundation and archway.

His memory isn't what it used to be now that he is 70, Hoffman says, but there are two things he will never forget: the date he was born and the night Udall died.

May 25, 1955.

"That never leaves me," he says.

It's been 50 years since a tornado three-quarters of a mile wide blindsided a sleeping Udall. It killed 77 people, injured 250 and destroyed virtually every building in the small Cowley County town 20 miles southwest of Wichita.

It remains the deadliest tornado ever recorded in a state known for them.

Hoffman remembers cowering in a car as the tornado roared by, then sorting through rubble for victims on that pitch-black night.

And yet, going through color slides of the devastation recently, he couldn't believe what he was seeing.

"This is Udall?" he asked. "It looks like Hiroshima."

Out of the darkness

Working for the railroad on that warm Wednesday five decades ago, Hoffman couldn't help but notice how the wind blew hot, then cold, then hot again.

"I said, 'Oh, boy, we're going to have a storm tonight,' " he said. "Then I just forgot it. What's the big deal about a storm? We had them all the time."

Hoffman's forecast was accurate. A storm in Oklahoma spawned a large tornado that struck Blackwell, killing 20 people before moving north into Kansas and lifting just outside South Haven at 10 p.m..

A second tornado touched down just north of Pawhuska about 9:40 p.m. But it was too far away for Oklahoma radar to detect. As rescue workers from Wichita raced south, the second tornado headed north, illuminated by heavy lightning.

Witnesses would report seeing the monster as it passed west of Arkansas City, zigzagged past Oxford and bore down on Udall.

Mulvane's chief of police saw it as he returned from Blackwell. He desperat ely tried to radio ahead. But the Udall Police Department didn't have a police radio in 1955.

A train engineer spotted it and blew his whistle in a vain attempt to warn the town.

Heavy rain kept radar at the National Weather Service office in Wichita from detecting the tornado. The office never issued a warning. A weather bulletin issued from Kansas City expired at 10 p.m.

With no new information in hand, a Wichita television station reported that the threat of severe weather had passed. A new bulletin stating that tornadoes were still possible wasn't issued until 10:08 p.m. and wasn't noticed by TV stations until after their 15-minute newscasts had ended. Records indicate only one Wichita broadcast outlet - a Christian radio station - reported it.

'And then it hit'

Hoffman had pretty much forgotten his stormy forecast by nightfall, but others around Udall grew wary as the day wound down.

Agnes Giddens had lost her husband and son in the Woodward, Okla., tornado in April 1947, and May 25 felt sickeningly familiar.

"I thought, 'Oh, my God, we're all going to be blown away. I wish I could call everyone and warn them,' " Giddens said.

Folks in Udall had laughed at Wesley Cole for digging a storm cave south of his house. It took him two years, but he'd finally finished that spring.

Louise Cole felt so uneasy as she went to a bridal shower downtown that she decided to drop off her gift and get home.

"I was scared," she said. "It was just dead still. . . . It was suffocat ing. I couldn't breathe."

She went home, woke up her two children, got them to the cave, "and then it hit."

The hail started about 10:35 p.m., just as 20-year-old Hoffman and the woman who would become his wife returned from a drive downtown to get razor blades and milk for her father. Before he could turn off the engine and get inside, he said, "the house started leaving."

It went from tranquillity to hell within seconds, Hoffman said.

A wash tub crashed against the car. A power pole with a transformer fell next to it. As he hunkered down inside the car, Hoffman looked up at what he believes was the inside of the tornado: Tiny twisters bounced around like snakes as lightning flashed heavily.

The Fujita scale measuring the strength of tornadoes hadn't been created yet, but meteorologists have determined in hindsight that the Udall tornado hit F-5, the highest rating on the scale.

It moved on toward downtown, where about a dozen people were cleaning up after the bridal shower at the community center. They cowered in the corner as the tornado tore the cinder-block building apart. Remarkably, everyone survived. Across the street, the outcome was different.

"Everyone that was in the pool hall was killed," said Beth Evans, whose father had been there for the regular pitch game until he came across the street to check on her just before the tornado hit.

Giddens huddled on the living room couch with her five children, the baby wrapped up in a quilt, as the tornado neared. Seconds before the house exploded, her husband and teenage son grabbed a mattress and pulled it over the family.

"We were the only family within two blocks all the way around us that did not lose someone," Giddens said. "Across the street, a lady died. Across the alley, three people died. Across the fence - it went on and on all over town that way."

People climbed out of the rubble as the horns of cars crushed by fallen brick walls blared.

Survivors began to go through the rubble of what had been Udall and flagged down motorists on the highway, pleading for help. There were so many dead and wounded that the first reporter on the scene, Henry Harvey of Wichita radio station KFBI, was pressed into duty as a stretcher bearer.

Harvey later summed it up simply, in an account now on file at the weather service's Wichita office:

"It was the worst night of my life."

50 years later

The full extent of Udall's decimation would not become clear until the sun came up.

The color slides that will be displayed Wednesday transport audiences back to when residents of Udall reeled and help arrived from all over.

The slides, many donated by the U.S. Air Force, came to the Udall historic al museum about a year ago and have not been widely shown.

Udall Police Chief Matt Dennis said they will introduce new generations of Kansans to the devastation left by a twister that redefined not just a small town but how the nation responds to severe weather.

For those who were there, the photos are a poignant reminder.

"This has left me . . . shaken," Hoffman said quietly after he'd seen the last one. "I kept looking for things I could recognize, but . . . there's nothing there that says 'This is Udall.' "

Some survivors still won't talk about that night, Dennis said.

"When you have pretty much half the people in town have a loved one hurt or killed, it can leave scars for many years," he said.

With more than 800 residents, Udall is larger today than it was the night the tornado struck. But poignant reminders remain. A memorial to those killed by the tornado is the centerpiece of the town park.

Two streets, Harvey and Lea Ann, are named after two of the 22 children who died.

The Odd Fellows Building on Main Street has a concrete block noting it was instituted in 1900 and rebuilt in 1955.

Before the tornado hit, trees formed natural canopies over Udall's streets. But tree limbs became deadly projectiles in the tornado. Now, trees are kept tightly trimmed.

Hoffman had planned to spend 10 days in late May on vacation at Yellowst one. But when he realized he wouldn't be in Udall for the 50th anniversary of the tornado, he rescheduled the trip.

"I couldn't miss this," he said.

Half a century later, he still can't hear a long train whistle or a lingering car horn without flashing back to a day that lives in Kansas infamy.

"If I haven't gotten over that by now," Hoffman said, "I guess I never will."

Reach Stan Finger at 268-6437 or sfinger@wichitaeagle.com.