Charlie Rollins had no way of knowing, as he ran out the door of The Wichita Eagle newsroom on the night of May 25, 1955, what he was getting himself into.
Twenty-six miles to his south, the town of Udall had just taken a direct hit from a devastating tornado and earned a place in Kansas lore. Seventy-seven people were killed that night, making the tornado the deadliest in the state’s history. Hundreds were injured.
Rollins, 25 at the time and a photographer, was woefully unprepared for the scene he was about to encounter as he and a reporter sped toward Udall.
“I had four of five negative holders. Ten shots was about it,” Rollins said.
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He had even fewer flashbulbs – a necessity to make pictures in the dark of night.
“A half-dozen maybe. Whatever I could get in my pocket,” he recalled.
Rollins estimates he arrived within 30 minutes of the tornado, even before many rescue workers had descended upon the town of 600.
“Later on, after our initial arrival in town, it just became more and more obvious that this was a catastrophe,” he said.
A lifelong Kansan, Rollins had never seen or experienced a tornado or the devastation caused by one. He recalls the thing that struck him most was the darkness that had enveloped the area.
“I couldn’t see any life in any of the houses or anywhere,” Rollins said.
After 30 minutes in town, Rollins spotted a young man he thought was probably a college student. The man was carrying the mud-spattered body of a young boy and was desperately searching for an ambulance.
With only six flashbulbs at his disposal, Rollins had to make every shot count. He shot two frames of the scene. The boy did not survive.
Before long, Rollins was speeding back to Wichita to develop his photographs. He said he wasn’t worried about whether or not he had the pictures, he was only worried whether tornadic storms were still lurking in his path back to Wichita.
In addition, Rollins’ grandmother was a resident of a nursing home in Udall, and he was concerned about her condition. It wasn’t until a day later that he learned she had survived.
Sixty years later, Rollins sits in the living room of his southeast Wichita home, with the same Graflex Speed Graphic camera he used that night in Udall sitting in his lap. Nearby sits a copy of Life Magazine, which published four of his six pictures from that night.
To this day, Rollins said he still doesn’t know the name of the little boy who lay dead in the arms of a rescuer, but he always wondered.
Rollins said his lack of preparedness before arriving in Udall shaped how he dealt with the situation that night.
“That pretty much tells the stories of my pictures: They’re recovery shots of victims,” he said. “Once I used up my film and bulbs, I was shot down. There wasn’t any other recourse.”
“I always regretted the fact that I didn’t have all of my flashbulbs, all of my filmholders available there with me,” he said. “That was something that I never experienced, and I was just so overwhelmed with trying to get some pictures but not really having all of my tools.”
Reach Travis Heying at 316-268-6468 or email@example.com.