Special Reports

Megan Gardiner's account of surviving the Greensburg tornado

Megan Gardiner surveys the Greensburg property where her home stood two years ago. Gardiner wrote a vivid description of the night of May 4, 2007, when a tornado leveled the town.
Megan Gardiner surveys the Greensburg property where her home stood two years ago. Gardiner wrote a vivid description of the night of May 4, 2007, when a tornado leveled the town. The Wichita Eagle

Editor's note: Megan Gardiner, a freshman at Pratt Community College, wrote this account of surviving the May 4, 2007 Greensburg tornado. It was so detailed that it caught the attention of a pair of meteorologists researching the outbreak. They cited her account in their research paper.

My Tornado Story

By Megan Gardiner

May 4, 2007 was a night that changed not only my life but 1,500 other lives too. I just thought of it as a normal day of the week, Friday to be exact. The tornado was rated and EF-5, which is the largest and most devastating tornado, and I was a part of it.

Friday morning I woke up and as usual, I was dreading going to school. On the other hand, I was excited it was Friday as that meant I could hang out with my friends later. I went to school and the track kids left around 12:45 or so and the golf kids left at 1:00 p.m. State Forensics was that day and weekend and they left sometime during the day also. The thing that I remember the most that day was getting new desks in my Math/Chemistry classroom. My friend, and I put most of them together and that took all hour. Then, like always, the day just went on as normal. No one expected anything to come later that night.

After school I had to go to work at 4:00 p.m. I worked at the Lunch Box in town. I went home and changed into my Lunch Box T-shirt, shorts, tennis shoes and put my hair in a messy bun. I drove to work and got there at my normal time and did my normal routine. I heard earlier that day we were supposed to get some storms but I also heard that the next day, storms were supposed to be worse than May 4th, so of course, I didn’t think much of it when the TV said we were in a tornado watch. Since it was Friday night, people don’t want to cook so we were very busy until 8:45. Usually we stop being busy around 8:00 p.m. and I can get most of the dishes done early. Well, the clouds started to look kind of funny. Darcy, (my boss) turned on the TV to the weather and you know, it wasn’t that bad near us. (Ha, Ha, little did we know the worst was yet to come). Then after a little while, Darcy’s cell phone kept ringing and it was her family saying the storm is supposed to be real bad and we needed to hurry and get out of there. I looked out and all it was doing was sprinkling. Around 9:15 p.m. I took the trash out and that was the most scary lightening I have ever seen. One of my co-workers was taking a smoke break at that time. I said, “Man, I wanted to hang out with my friends tonight but I guess I won’t be doing that, will I”? He said, “Yeah, I know, I had some plans and now I’ll probably just stay home, but hopefully it won’t be too bad”. Well, we both went back in after looking at the amazing lightening show and went back to work and tried to get as much done as we could. Then the two front people left because all their work was done around 9:30 p.m. As I was trying to hurry and do dishes I grabbed my cell phone and put it in my bra because I figured my parents would call me and tell me to get home. The only person that got through to me was by best friend, Megan. Of course I didn’t answer it because of the “No cell phone” policy at work. About 5-10 min. later the tornado sirens started to go off. I ran out to the front to look out the window. The sky was pretty dark and all I saw was lightening. It wasn’t even raining. I went back and did the dishes as fast as I could and was putting them away fast! People kept calling Darcy and she was in the middle of cleaning the grill and the fryers and she wouldn’t leave them. She didn’t say I could go either so I stayed and was doing my job still. The sirens were going off for about 10 minutes and I was thinking, well they just spotted one out in the country and it’s a false alarm and these sirens should go off any minute, but they didn’t. I was kind of starting to get a little worried and finally I dropped my dishes and I told Darcy I was leaving. She said, “That’s fine, go on and get out of here”. Well, while I was clocking out I remembered she lived out in the country and so I said, “Darcy, come to my house if you need to. Just go on down the stairs”. She said, “OK, thanks I might do that”. As I got in my car it was barely sprinkling and the lightening was as bad as it was earlier. The speed limit in town is 30 mph, but I went 50-60 mph because by then, my heart was pumping and my adrenaline was going. Luckily I didn’t get stopped by a cop and I made it home with tornado sirens still sounding.

I literally ran into my house because I was afraid I was going to get struck by all the lightening. When I busted through the front door my dad was up there with a flashlight waiting for me. He said, “Grab your purse and lets go downstairs”. This I thought was odd because normally dad stays upstairs and watches the clouds and ignores the sirens. While we were heading down there he said that our neighbors were over here and that’s when I realized that was why he was going downstairs, because we had company! They were all glad I made it home and was safe. The two little girls were laying the big pillow I made a few years back watching TV and the little boy, Owen, was playing with my dogs. I told my parents I told Darcy to come over so if she shows up they would expect her. About that time I realized I had a lock box with $1,000 in it upstairs in my room. My mom said I better run and get it. So again, I really did run. Then I was just scanning my room to see if I wanted to grab anything else. That’s the last time I ever saw my room. I passed my bathroom going back downstairs and I looked in there. I saw my retainers and wouldn’t you know it, I grabbed them too! I was really reluctant though, because I knew a tornado wasn’t going to hit and I didn’t want to have to put them back up. I ran back downstairs and was sitting on the couch. Owen was trying to go out in the hallway so I hurried and sat there so he couldn’t get through. We sat there and were talking for awhile. Then he started to say how he liked tornados and didn’t like tomatoes. This kid is probably 3 or so. Natalie, his mom, said he gets those mixed around. After she said that, that made sense. Now I was on track with him from that point on. Well, my dad was looking out the basement window and he said, “Meg, does Darcy drive a truck”? I said, “yeah”. He said, “Well a truck just pulled up in Omero’s driveway (our neighbor)”. Omero, dad and I went back upstairs. All this time the sirens are still going off and we shined a light over there and Omero whistled. It turned out to be one of Omero’s friends. He ran over to our house and by now it is hailing at least quarter size hail and the wind picked up a lot. We went back downstairs and stayed there for awhile. I was watching the weather and Dave Freeman said it was going to hit Greensburg at 9:52 p.m. I was like, well, we have 5 minutes; that is if he is right. Then the hail got real big and I said, “I wonder how bit it is”. Omero, Kyle and dad went upstairs and went outside and got a couple of pieces. They were probably golf ball or a little larger. Then Owen came back and started to talk to me again. Everyone was downstairs now. Sirens still sounding and I looked at my phone and it said 9:49 p.m. so I got down by the couch and grabbed a pillow and a blanket. The wind picked up furiously.. The power goes out and I was thinking Oh Boy, but the wind was so bad I didn’t think it would ever get that windy. I put the blanket around me to get ready and by this time all 3 of Omero’s kids were whining and were really scared. I sat down facing the couch getting ready to crouch down, when all of a sudden my ears started to pop really bad. I mean this was worse than going in a plane or diving deep under the water. This just hurt. It was probably one of the worst feelings I have ever felt. I thought it was just me so I said, “My ears are popping and hurt real bad”. Then my parents and Omero’s family said the same thing. I was like, Oh My Gosh, this can’t be good. Since this has never happened before, I thought this could get bad, but in the back of my mind I’m thinking nothing every happens to Greensburg so my house isn’t going to get hit by a tornado. (Ha, Ha, was I wrong or what?!) I looked at my phone and it said 9:50 p.m., so I was like, well I think I’m going to take cover now because the hail and wind were just horrible. Earlier, I said I got my lock box and my purse. I set them by the doorway where I sat, which was probably a foot or two away from the couch. Well, the wind and sirens were still going and I reached around and grabbed my purse and put it under me. When I was doing that it seemed like it just got deathly silent. I bet if someone dropped a pin on the ground u would be able to hear it a mile away. I mean this was freaky. I remembered one of my friends from Pratt who went through a tornado a few years ago said it got so still and quiet and I knew this was it! After I got my purse I tried to reach and get my lock box but as I stuck my hand out, the windows exploded! They shattered into millions of pieces. I didn’t see it but hearing it was enough.

Now, this part is hard to describe in words, but I heard the walls tearing and ripping off into pieces. Then something fell on my left shoulder and I had my head covered with my hands (like the drills we do in school). When they fell on me I decided to brace myself so I took my hands off my head and was on all fours. The sound was like a jet engine going right over us, about to take off. Just hearing the house rip into shreds was horrible. While this was happening my shirt and blanket started to fly up and I was thinking, Oh My Gosh, I’m going to get glass and crap up my back and I’m going to get cut. But then something even heavier fell on top of my mom and I guess she was kind of on top of me to protect me. Anyway, something fell in on her neck and she couldn’t move. She started to scream bloody murder. The tornado was still going but I tried to yell at her and ask her if she was OK. She didn’t reply. She kept screaming and I was thinking Oh My Gosh, she is going to die. I’ve got to talk to her and make sure she is alright. I kept saying, “Mom, Mom, are you OK? Are you alright?” She finally said “No, I have something on my neck”. I said, “Stay calm and it will be over in a minute”.. I mean we had to yell really loud because the wind was so overpowering us we could barely hear one another. It sounded as if she was in the next room over. What seemed like a lifetime finally came to an end. Then I started to yell, “Is everyone OK? Dad, are you OK”? He didn’t answer so I kept yelling for him. I thought he was dead. Then Mom and I yelled at the same time and he answered that he was OK. I asked Mom again if she was alright. She said, “Yeah, kind of”. We stayed there for awhile because we weren’t sure if it was over. Then I heard a man’s voice say, “Is everyone OK? Is anyone hurt? I can get you out of here but the stairs are blocked so we’ll have to find a different way out”. I thought this man was a rescuer and I was thinking, now how long were we really down there if he is a rescuer. It turns out it was just Kyle (Omero’s friend). We all replied “Yeah, we are OK”. I managed to make my way up out of the rubble. Dad had Joe (our Boxer dog) on the leash pretty much the whole time. That way he couldn’t go anywhere. When the windows exploded Joe jumped up and got loose from my dad’s grip on the leash. Mom and I were screaming for him. I felt him brush against my leg so I tried to grab for him while I was under cover, but all I grabbed was debris. I had no clue where Joe went and neither did anyone else. After the tornado passed and we got up one of the first things I asked was, “Where is Joe”? Dad said Cheyenne (our pug) was fine but we didn’t know where Joe went. I was thinking, Oh My Gosh, he is gone and dead. When I shown the flashlight everywhere, I spotted Joe snuggled up on the couch where my dad took one of the cushions off to cover himself up with. Well, Joe was laying there and all you could see was his head because there were 2 boards that were on top of him protecting him. We got him out and started to make our way up.

I turned and saw the roof was covering my feet and the wall fell on us and some other boards and stuff. I helped my mom up and when everyone made their way out of the rubble I grabbed my purse and a flashlight and was determined to find a way out. The whole basement was destroyed. I shined the light every direction to see where the best place to crawl out was. It took me awhile to decide what path I was going to take but I finally thought I found one. I started to head up and crawled on top of things that weren’t very sturdy, but I made it up. I looked around and pretty much the whole block was gone. Then Omero climbed up and handed me one kid at a time. Owen was the last kid and he wouldn’t let me go, so I had a kid hanging on me while I was trying to help Natalie up and the other adults. Ever since the tornado hit it was raining. When a few of us were out of the basement it started to hail a little bit. Probably 20-30 minutes later, we got out of the basement. We looked back and there was nothing left. “Where do we go”, someone asked and it seemed like we were trapped in our own yard because the rubble was piled so high we couldn’t find a way to get out. While we were finding a way out I spotted a car battery charger I won at the After Prom so I picked it up and carried it with us. We managed to make it to the street. I looked across the road and saw that most of the school was gone on our side. You know, you always think it would be awesome if a tornado would hit your school but let me tell you, I was shocked and kind of disappointed. We heard some voices down the street and shined the light on them. They were a few houses down the street but we all made a big group and were walking south. We saw the house cattycorner to us was still standing (so we thought) so we were going to go there to get shelter.. As we got close the roof was gone but we smelled gas. We yelled in at them to get out. They worked their way out the window and someone said “Well, where do we go? We have to get shelter”. About then is where the wind picked up big time, it was making me blow away, kind of like when you walk a big dog and they take off running and pull you. My dad said, “Lets go to the hospital”. We all started to head for the hospital. The wind was getting stronger and I was certain there was going to be another tornado. We started to head down the street and my mom was totally confused and I had to tell her where we were at. While I was doing that I was watching for the outline of a tornado coming towards us because the wind was so bad. I had to squat down a few times so it wouldn’t have blown me over. There were power lines down and we had to straddle them. The hospital was only 2 ½ blocks away from our house and we met more people on the way over there. So the people decided to follow us because they didn’t know where to go. When we got there I realized I had been stepping on something for quite awhile. Dad unlocked the door we were at, and got us in. Only part of the hospital was still standing but we made it to the basement. I took my shoe off and looked and there was a shingle and a nail shoved up in my shoe. My dad and another nurse pulled it out. It didn’t go in my foot thank goodness. By then I was thinking about all my friends and wondering if they were OK. Right off the bat, after I pulled the nail out of my shoe, one of my friends that works at the hospital hugs me and says, “Why don’t you go to the physical therapy room.” I walked behind her looking at everyone down there and thinking this place is going to be so bad if another tornado comes with all these old and handicap folks. But my mom, Omero’s family and I went to the same room. Omero said he was going back after his dog, Sadie. My dad went to work and my mom was going to help if she could. Well, after I sat down, I realized I had some cuts on me, but nothing major. Natalie’s kids changed clothes into a gown from the hospital. We were all soaked from the rain and hail walking there. I covered my dogs up and went into the hall where by now, there was a lot more people out here. I went around and asked people if they needed anything and they said, “Water”. I was handing out water for a little bit when I realized someone needs to call my brother. I went up and out the back door to try to get service and I finally got a hold of him after about 3 tries. Then of course, we lost signal and it would took about 3 more tries to get him again. I looked around the corner and saw so many ambulances. I didn’t know that many towns would come. I just figured Pratt and Dodge would be the only ones but I saw Buffalo, Kinsley, Comanche County and there were many more. By seeing all those ambulances in town, I figured this must have been a pretty bad tornado. Matt, my brother, was in Wichita watching Spiderman 3 at this time and when I said our house is gone but we are safe, he said he was on his way. I knew he probably wouldn’t get through but I wasn’t going to argue. I went back downstairs and by that time the physical therapy room accumulated a few more kids. I was thinking great, I’ll be babysitting all night tonight, and my thought was right. Around 12 or 1 a.m. I finally convinced the kids that it was way past their bedtimes and got some blankets and pillows and they went to sleep.

There are 2 sections in the physical therapy room. You pull the curtain to divide it. My dad brought in a man that was yelling and screaming and in major pain. They put him on the bed next to us. Natalie and I said, “Let’s go back to the other section”. We took all the kids back there and settled down. I didn’t know if that man had open wounds on his leg so we thought it would be safer to not take a chance and let the kids see. After they cleared a path for the ambulances they got that guy out and we went back to the other side. I had to pee and of course, the water and electric stuff wasn’t working, so the toilets were like port-a potties with the smell!. I decided to go outside between cars parked in the back of the parking lot. I did that a couple of times while we were there. I didn’t know where we were going to go that night, and figured we would stay there until morning; then hopefully get hold of someone to come get us. I went back to the physical therapy room, now it was late and the nurses were trying to put the BHU (Behavioral Health Unit) patients to sleep on mattresses on the floor. The first guy they were going to put in my room had to poop. He was in a wheelchair and they wouldn’t be able to get him in the bathroom so they said to hold it or go in your pants a and we will lay you down.. He said no and was arguing with them for quite a bit. He ended up staying in his chair and I don’t know if he ever went poop or not. Then this old woman was walking down the hall and she was cussing the nurses out and saying , “Let me go”, and she started to come in the physical therapy room with all the kids. Well, I didn’t want her in there so I got up and started to shut the door on her. A man grabbed her and said it’s OK and to calm down and that she didn’t need to yell. Then the crazy lady said, “Let go of me, what you think you know how to handle a woman, well you’re wrong”. As they continued their conversation I got the door shut. Then, they brought in some other patients to lay there but they went right to sleep so they didn’t bother me. Most of the night I sat with my mom, Natalie and my dogs with the kids but I was still a little wound up. I couldn’t sleep, even though I was tired. I was getting cold because I still had on my wet clothes and didn’t change or anything. I found a blanket and covered up with that and just leaned against the wall and let everything soak in.

Natalie’s sister came from Dodge City to take them back there. We all said our good-byes and they left. We asked Omero if he could call my grandparents and tell them we were all OK when they got to Dodge and he said, “It’s the least we can do..” Then it was just 2 kids, my mom and I in the room. One of my friends saw me and he came in and talked to us for a little while. I lost track of time but I was talking to my mom when all of a sudden all of our camping buddies walked in. I think my jaw actually dropped when I saw them. Then my mom turns to see what I was looking at and she gets up and starts to cry while she was hugging them all. At that point I knew we were saved. Honestly, they were the last people I expected to see. I never would have expected them to come up and save us. Mom asked if they were camping and they said, “Yes and we tried to call all you guys and couldn’t get through and we couldn’t wait any longer so we said screw it and hopped in the truck and headed here”. My dad came down and talked to Terry and said, “Why don’t you take the dogs, Julie and Megan to Coldwater and they can stay at the camper”. As we were getting into Terry’s truck we saw Matt and my Aunt Marge and Uncle Don. I jumped out and ran over and hugged them. Matt’s friend, Dylan, was with him too. We said we were leaving but asked if they could stay and wait for dad and take him to Coldwater when he was finished. We were then on our way and the clock said 4:00 a.m. I wanted to go get my lock box out of the basement so I asked Terry if we could run by the house and grab it. Mom said “No I don’t want to go back.” But Terry and the other guys said they would look for it. They got to the house and tried to get done to the basement but they didn’t grab the right lock box, I said that was OK and then I wanted to get out of there.

As we were driving, power lines were down and there were dead cows on the side of the road. There is a gas plant between Greensburg and Coldwater and we smelled a lot of gas so we called 911 and told them there was a gas leak out 6 miles from Greensburg. We arrived to the camper, Mom and I talked to some friends and went and showered at the bath houses. I had debris in my hair when I took out my messy bun, crap just fell out and I got a cut on my head that killed me when soap/shampoo got in it. I went back to the camper and pulled the bed out and tried to sleep, but I just couldn’t. Right as I started to doze off, the boys came into the camper, around 5:30 a.m. Then, my dad went and showered. I didn’t go to sleep after that really, but just ½ hr. or so. We got up and ate breakfast at our friend’s camper and on their TV it said more severe storms again in our part of the state. Oh Boy, none of us wanted to go through what we just went through so we decided to go stay with some friends in Pratt. By now, everyone and their dog were calling and texting me to see if I was OK. Around 2 or 3 p.m. we left Coldwater in Matt’s car and my aunt and uncle followed. We were going to see if we could go back to Greensburg and kind of look around. We pulled up and there was a National Guard guy that said, “Sorry Sir, Martial law is still in effect and no one can enter”. We took some country roads around Greensburg and got back to Pratt. We arrived at one of our friend’s house and turned on the news. Of course, they won’t let Greensburg residents enter but they will let every news channel there ever was in to take pictures and videos of it. Now to me, that just doesn’t make any sense at all. My other Aunt Hedi from Hutchinson, came down on Sunday and let us use one of their cars for as long as we needed to. That same day Nancy Kisner, another P.A. in Greensburg, called dad and wanted us to go down there and help get some hospital stuff out of there before it got water damage to it, so we drove to Greensburg and had to go sign in at a place. When we pulled into town it started to rain hard. I was worried another tornado might come. We went through town and saw all the destruction. I just couldn’t believe it. I mean again, there are no words to describe the devastation we saw. It’s nothing like the pictures and TV. In real life it’s 100 times worse because you can see everything just shredded and ripped into pieces. We made it to the hospital and it’s still raining even harder. We go downstairs and clean off the shelves then Matt comes in and says he had to move his car away because it started to flood by his car. The water was probably ½ft to 1 ft. high. Dad gets a call from his sister and says there is a tornado heading straight for Greensburg again. I was like great, just what we need. One thing I never want to go through again and it is going to be here, 2 days in a row! We were in the basement and safe. I was forming my game plan in my head. There were a lot of mattresses people slept on the night before on the floor and I was going to pull them over me if anything would hit. The bad thing was the tornado sirens were taken out the tornado so they wouldn’t sound if one was spotted coming. We made it out OK. Nothing ever came, just a little hail and lots of rain but that was it. We had to check out where we checked in and then we went back to Pratt.

We stayed in the Ray’s house for about a week. I felt bad for invading their space but I mean what else can we do. We managed to salvage a few things in the rubble. I was the only one that couldn’t locate my room in the rubble. Everyone else found things of theirs but I didn’t find anything except the rubies. We lived in an apartment in Hayter’s basement and it was small and cozy. We lived there for the whole summer, at the end of July we moved into a FEMA trailer in Greensburg. People may say, “Oh I’m so sorry I know what you are going through”. Actually they don’t. You have no idea until it happens. We were really sore for at least a week after it happened because of everything that fell on top of us. That’s the kind of stuff people don’t understand. If you don’t think anything is exciting in your town, and you live in tornado alley, believe me, that could change in about 4 minutes that’s about how long the tornado lasted. I never want to experience that again. One is enough and one too many for me.. It will turn your whole life upside down. Now I hate to say, but I get very paranoid when a storm comes. Even if it isn’t bad, my memory flashes back to that night. May 4th changed 1500 people’s lives when the EF-5 tornado came through, and only 1500 people can say they were in an EF-5 tornado. I was one of them.