1995: Survivors look back 40 years at Kansas’ deadliest tornado

Editor’s note: Story originally published in The Wichita Eagle on May 25, 1995

UDALL – For little Larry Blevins, days didn't get any better than May 25, 1955.

School was out, his 11th birthday was just around the corner and Blevins got to ride his bike all day, past stately two-story homes shaded by elm trees bunched so thickly that their branches formed natural canopies over Udall streets.

Blevins didn't notice the wind on this most perfect of days, but other people did.

''Those winds blowing hot and cold are a bad sign," a Belle Plaine farmer told Carol Lacey, who had driven over to his farm from Udall that morning. "Mark my words, something bad's going to happen."

The weather reminded Agnes Giddens too much of another day in 1947: the day when her husband and son died in a tornado that hit Woodward, Okla.

When 10 p.m. newcasts that evening said the threat of severe weather was over, Giddens doubted it. But most of Udall's residents sighed with relief at the "all clear" and began preparing for bed.

About 10:30, the power died. Moments later, Udall died, too.

A massive tornado obliterated the small farming community 20 miles south of Wichita in a matter of seconds, killing 77 people and injuring nearly 400 others three-fourths of the town's population.

It was the deadliest tornado ever in a state known for tornadoes. In the 40 years since that night, Udall has become a Kansas synonym for tornado.

City marshal Wayne Keely was one of the few who saw trouble coming. He had gone downtown to buy some pop for his daughter when a friend came out of the pool hall to let him know the severe weather warnings had been called off.

By the time Keely got home, "the moon was shining just as pretty as you can be," he said. But the white wind clouds racing up from the southwest and a storm front close behind scared him.

Keely dashed into his house, where his daughter and a friend were watching television, and told Ellen, his wife, "Get 'em down in the cave."

Rain began coming in sheets, hail fell, and the wind roared so strongly it blew limbs and leaves horizontally. Those who could began scrambling for shelter. Others just huddled where they were and prayed.

Then, it hit.

The fury

Images from those seconds of fury flash like fast-forward video of misery and miracles.

Lightning was so constant it seemed like the sun was out, survivors said. ''You could watch houses come apart and debris pile up," said Gaillard Thompson, who had rushed with his wife and children to Mayor Toots Rowe's tornado cave across the street. "It blew the door right off the cave and just filled it full of stuff."

Jerrold Hoffman and the woman who would become his wife had been downtown to get razor blades and milk for her father.

They were still in the car when the wind and hail started. A washtub slammed into the side of the car and a transformer pole fell between their car and the one next to it.

Looking up at what he now realizes was the inside of the main funnel, Hoffman said, he could see tiny twisters bouncing like snakes and lightning streaking in arches overhead.

Huddled in their storm cave on the southwest corner of town, members of the Keely family watched the flame of their single candle grow thinner and taller, reaching a height of perhaps 10 inches before it flickered and went out.

Ellen Keely thought the whistle they heard was the evening train. "No," Wayne said, "the train's already gone through."

Keely's daughter, Sonie, feared the cave would collapse.

''It was shaking and there was dust coming down on us," she said. "I opened my eyes, and it seemed like a dust storm." It was hard to breathe.

When the windows in his bedroom exploded, Larry Blevins sat bolt upright in bed, his eyes wide with fear. Seconds later his dad raced into the room and swept him to the floor.

A few blocks away, Agnes Giddens was screaming. "This is it! The house is going! This whole town is going! We'll all be killed!"

Giddens grabbed her baby, wrapped him in a quilt and sat down on the edge of the family divan with her four other children. She beat her knees with her fists and pleaded, "Dear God, dear God, dear God, please, no, not again! If it takes one of my family, then take me, too.' "

Seconds before the house exploded, Giddens' husband and 16-year-old son grabbed a mattress and pulled it over the family.

''This is the way you die," Giddens remembered thinking as she collapsed beneath the walls and blacked out in the rubble.

When she came to, she and her husband began looking for their children. A leg, cold and seemingly lifeless, stuck out from the debris. Even as they dug frantically, Giddens was convinced her child was dead.

Her husband took the girl in his arms, and she stirred. Giddens grabbed her, and she said, "Mamma, I'm dead, I'm just plumb dead."

''Say it again, girl, say it again," Giddens said, laughing and crying at the same time.

Sitting on the edge of his invalid wife's bed, Charlie Selvage saw his neighbor's house in one flash of lightning and watched it come apart as though hit by an explosion in the next.

Allene Kistler and 10 or 11 other people were cleaning up the community building downtown after a bridal shower for first-grade teacher Aileen Holtje. The cinder-block building seemed to come apart in slow motion, Kistler said. The water heater tipped, pipes snapped and water gushed onto mounds of hailstones. Suddenly, the people who were huddled together in a corner of the building were outdoors, covered in concrete dust and debris.

Then it was over.

The aftermath

In his storm cellar, Wayne Keely caught himself thinking, "People are going to want to know when this happened," so he looked at his watch. It read 10:38. He stepped out of the storm cave.

''What's it look like?" his wife asked.

''I don't think there's 10 people left in Udall alive," he said.

From where he stood, there were no houses left, no trees. His police car had been crushed into a pile of metal maybe two feet high. When lightning flashes allowed it, Keely could see all the way past the railroad tracks downtown, more than a dozen blocks away.

Slowly, those who could began crawling out of the debris to wander around, dazed and barefoot some of them naked.

The railroad crossing light had malfunctioned and the warning bell kept dinging.

It was cold, so cold.

Kistler and the others with her climbed from the rubble of the community building and went in search of blankets, towels or someplace warm.

Her grandparents' home was a half-block away, but Kistler and the others went in the other direction, eventually huddling with other survivors in the bathtub of what was left of a demolished house near the railroad crossing.

They started singing. Strains of "How Great Thou Art" and "The More We Get Together, the Happier We Will Be" drifted over the debris. The sound became a beacon for other survivors.

People were crying, moaning in pain, calling for help or shouting the names of missing loved ones.

''The greatest sound I heard that night was when I heard my dad hollering my name," said Kistler, who was 15 at the time.

Bud and Roxie Sweet's home had been wrenched from its foundation and thrown into their neighbor's house, but they had survived. They tiptoed through the rubble and over downed power lines toward Roxie's mother's house, where Kistler and others were singing in the bathtub.

Bud went to check on his parents' house. He was crawling through the remains of what had been a neighbor's house when he spotted an old man sitting in a ditch, neck deep in water. He carried the man to the shell of a house just to get him out of the cold weather, and found his folks huddling in the one room left in their house.

Every home and building in Udall had been destroyed or damaged by the storm, but rescue workers found one next to K-53 and near K-15 that still had a roof and four walls and turned it into a first-aid center for victims.

Clara Lacey's house had been right next door to that home. But it was gone. Lacey was found half a block away, sitting in the street, still clutching the infant and 4-year-old sons that she had shielded with her body on the bottom bunk of a bed just before the storm hit.

''I just kind of vaguely remember being out in the rain, and having the boys with me," said Lacey, who suffered a skull fracture.

Sweet's quest hadn't ended. He went to look for his brother, who lived a few blocks away. As Sweet searched the pile of debris that had been his brother's house, he turned and saw his sister-in-law, who was five months pregnant, wandering around in a daze.

Part of 2-by-4 was protruding from her side and dragging the ground as she walked.

Another rescuer tracked down a saw, and Sweet held the 2-by-4 while he sawed it off. Then they got her into a station wagon headed for the hospital in Winfield with other survivors.

Miracles and oddities

Amid the devastation, there were miracles. Somehow, the chain on the main line at the gas house broke, shutting the gas off.

Two large Mobil Oil Storage tanks north of the community building survived the tornado intact.

Dozens of houses had only one portion still standing: the area where survivors huddled.

Among them were Omar Rowley and his wife, who defied conventional wisdom and huddled under a drop-leaf table in their kitchen. When everything else in the house blew away, the table stood still.

Despite the trauma of having the board sawed from her side, Bud Sweet's sister-in-law survived to give birth to a healthy baby. So did Clara Lacey, who nicknamed her new son "Tornado Pete." In fact, every pregnant woman in town that night later gave birth to healthy babies.

''Whatever else was there, God was present that night, too," Roxie Sweet said.

Along with the miracles, there were oddities.

Two miles south of Udall, on the porch of a house untouched by the storm, a rocking chair scooted from one end of the porch to the other and spun in circles several times just seconds before Udall was struck.

In the rubble of a Udall house, a refrigerator stood untouched. A vase holding a rosebud atop it stood upright, the water unspilled but the doily beneath it was gone.

A coconut pie was found undisturbed on a board in the middle of the rubble. A 12-gauge shotgun, not even scratched, was atop another pile.

A letter, once in a drawer inside a home, was found a day later in El Dorado, 45 miles away.

A single filing cabinet stood unscathed in the debris of the school. Inside was the engagement ring a Udall school teacher had placed there for safe keeping.

Such happy stories were merely points of light on a dark night, however.

The tragedies

Twenty-two of the 77 confirmed fatalities in the Udall tornado were children. Another five people all children in the same family were killed outside of Udall by the same storm.

All seven members of the Giddens family survived. But 17 people nearly half of the people who lived nearby were killed.

Two of Kistler's classmates at Udall High School died in the tornado.

Seven bodies were found in the debris of the pool hall, where crowds would gather every Wednesday night to watch the boxing matches on one of Udall's few television sets.

''The worst thing was trying to identify people," Keely said. "People you'd known all your life, you couldn't tell who they were."

It was even hard to identify the living. People were so covered with mud and debris that they were often identified by the sound of their voices, rather than their appearance.

People picking through the rubble of Udall couldn't believe what they were seeing. Drivers passing Udall on K-15 after the storm had a startling sight of their own: "Tiny" Whitcomb, a huge middle-aged man, flagging down traffic in nothing but his underpants, begging motorists to "go back and get help. Udall's been blown off the map."

The recovery

Help came from all over. It took volunteers just one day to build a new city hall downtown to serve as a disaster center, but several more days to make the roads through Udall passable again.

Those roads clogged with sightseers wanting a look at what was left of the town. With the permission and assistance of Kansas Highway Patrol troopers, workers charged the gawkers $1 a car and raised $27,000 for Udall families, most of whom had had no homeowners' insurance.

In the days that followed, funerals were held several times a day. After giving residents a few days to pick through the rubble for what they could salvage, authorities pushed the debris into a huge pile on the edge of town and set it afire.

What didn't burn was shoved into a large hole and buried next to where the high school had been. Forty years later, tornado debris still works its way to the surface of what is now the Udall High School football field and practice lot.

It took a crane better than two days to knock down the one concrete wall left standing at what had been a brand new high school. The 18-inch-thick concrete walls of that school had been been snapped off at ground level a feat structural engineers later told Keely would take winds in excess of 700 mph to accomplish.

Shattered residents coped as well as they could.

Udall school teacher Cleo Tschopp could accept the loss of her home, her photos, everything she owned. But she could not find a way to accept the loss of nine of her second- and third-grade students until she wrote a letter telling each of them goodbye.

Her farewell to those children: Lea Ann Kennedy, Mary Boyd Horn, Oran Paul Butcher, Clinton Wayne Turner, Patricia R. Boyd, Gerald Kent Karnes, Maxine Faye Karnes, Dickie Braddy and Gary Dean Atkinson, helped others said goodbye, too. Single-story tract homes clones of each other, except for their paint color sprang up on the barren tracts of land where elm trees once stood, some so huge it took three men to encircle them.

''It was years before we had any trees and birds again," Lacey said.

It was years before Udall began feeling safe again, too. A two-story observation tower was built on the southwest corner of town.

Officially, it was for civil defense drills during the height of the Cold War. Unofficially, it became Udall's "tornado tower," where volunteers kept an around-the-clock watch for tornadoes, determined never to be caught sleeping again.

''The trees weren't very big in town," said Sonie Murray, Keely's daughter. "You could see all over."

The new Udall soon outgrew its predecessor. But it has never had the look or the feel of the "old" Udall, residents say.

Trees that were mere saplings on the day of the tornado have grown tall and sturdy now. But those who remember the limbs that crashed through walls and windows keep them tightly trimmed.

So many basements have been built under Udall homes and public buildings that the entire population of 824 residents could get underground if another tornado threatened. The town's five tornado sirens are tested every weekday at noon.

Blevins, now the Udall Elementary School principal, said some Udall residents talk wistfully about moving to Winfield or Wellington or other towns with old homes and old trees something Udall just doesn't have any more.

Lacey understands their mood.

''Udall's lost its character," she said.

When the brand new Lacey home blew away on May 25, 1955, there was a "little old sapling" in the front yard, Lacey said.

It's a large, aging elm tree now that has seen its best days.

''I wish we had something else, but he won't let me cut it down," said Lacey, motioning toward her husband, Ray, sitting in the living room of the house they built on the same foundation. "It's kind of a keepsake."