Finger on the Weather

Remembering the Hesston tornado, 25 years later


They were tornadoes so powerful that the man who developed the Fujita Scale hopped on a plane for Kansas to study the damage himself.

A photo of the F-5 tornado taken by Wichita Eagle photographer Dave Williams as it tore through Hesston 25 years ago Friday was so mesmerizing that it hangs in my dining room to this day.

The Eagle’s headline the next day – Every Kansan’s Nightmare – is perhaps the best I’ve ever seen, because you instantly knew what it was referring to and instinctively nodded, “That’s right.”

KFDI radio reporter John Wright’s live reports as the tornado bore down on Hesston earned KFDI an Edward R. Murrow Award, the highest national award for radio news reporting.

“To this day, I consider it the most compelling, life-saving radio reporting I’ve ever heard,” said Dan Dillon, whose career at KFDI spanned more than 30 years.

There have been stronger tornadoes since then. Indeed, as the tornado that killed young Lucas Fisher outside Burrton was ripping through Hesston, an even stronger tornado was forming just east of the town. It would go on to kill Ruth Voth in her rural homestead near Goessel.

But the Hesston tornado was the first to be captured extensively on videotape, meaning it received a lot of attention across the nation. It snapped America out of the illusion that Tornado Alley was becoming a thing of the past, thanks to several quieter than normal years in the 1980s.

And it served as something of an reminder for weather researchers of how cycling supercell thunderstorms can produce one strong tornado after another, a phenomenon seen several times since then – including on May 4, 2007, when several powerful tornadoes touched down in central Kansas, one right after the other.

Reach Stan Finger at 316-268-6437 or Follow him on Twitter: @StanFinger.