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Rarely seen photos of the Hesston and Goessel tornadoes

The Tri-State Tornado, which rumbled through Missouri, Illinois and Indiana in 1925 and killed an estimated 695 people, is widely accepted as the deadliest tornado in U.S. history, even though the actual number of people killed varies depending on what source one consults.

The death toll was so high for a number of reasons, including lack of warning and poorly constructed buildings within which people sought shelter from the F5 tornado. But another factor was that the tornado was so large people who saw it coming didn’t recognize it for what it was. They simply thought it was a large, dark cloud – not a tornado – so they did not seek shelter until the tornado was practically upon them.

I thought of the Tri-State Tornado as I interviewed survivors of the Hesston tornado over the past few weeks. Several of them said they didn’t see the tornado – just a giant black cloud. But that was the tornado. Here’s a shot of the tornado fairly early in its life span, by weather researcher Jon Davies.

As Dixie Fisher, who lost her youngest son, 6-year-old Lucas, to the tornado, put it: “It was just a wall coming at us.” The Wichita Eagle the next day called the tornado “Every Kansan’s Nightmare.” To this day, that strikes me as the perfect headline for that tragedy: a massive tornado, churning across the prairie, bearing down on a small town.

A tornado so powerful one could do everything right and still be killed. Probably the most remarkable aspect of that outbreak was that only two people were killed.

Hesston became known around the nation, because dramatic photos and video of the tornado were widely shown. One of those who photographed the outbreak was Doug Nelson of Centralia, who captured some of the most striking images of the Hesston and Goessel tornadoes I’ve ever seen. He took the rest of the photos I’ve featured in this blogpost.

Davies called the Hesston tornado the first large tornado he ever witnessed, and it has stayed with him in the years since. A noted weather researcher, Davies co-authored a scientific paper on the outbreak with Chuck Doswell, Don Burgess and John Weaver.

As the Hesston tornado was plowing through Hesston, a second tornado touched down just northeast of the town. The two tornadoes paralleled each other for about two miles, with the second tornado strenghtening rapidly. It eventually pulled the Hesston tornado into its rotation and continued northeast into Marion County.

Nelson continued tracking the storm and the last photo was taken as the Goessel tornado was crossing K-15 in Marion County – not far from where the tornado heavily damaged a farm and killed 68-year-old Ruth Voth at her rural home.

Davies told me that the Goessel tornado – like its Hesston predecessor – had multiple vortices (mini-twisters) inside the main funnel, and those vortices scoured circular suction debris marks out of the ground as the tornado moved along. Theodore Fujita calculated that the tornado’s winds would have had to be more than 300 miles an hour to create circular debris marks instead of oblong tracks.

In fact, weather officials say, the Goessel tornado may well have been the strongest tornado ever recorded, but those wind speed estimations could not be confirmed.

Still, the Hesston and Goessel tornadoes were a jolting “wake-up call,” as Davies put it, after years of virtual silence in Tornado Alley. And they’re reminders of why residents of the Great Plains should always take watches and warnings seriously.