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1974 Emporia Tornado

Tornado

“At least six people were killed, more than 80 hospitalized and an unknown additional number injured by a tornado that ripped across the northwest corner of Emporia early Saturday evening. The twister virtually demolished the Lincoln Village Mobile Home Park and the Flint Hills Village Shopping Center.” (The Emporia Gazette – Extra – Sunday, the Ninth Day of June 1974 on Newspapers.com)

This is one of those ‘Where were you when’ moments.

On June 8th, my husband and I had been married for about 3 weeks. We had a 2nd floor apartment on 5th Avenue just East of Rural Street in Emporia. Mike’s brother was visiting Emporia to pre-enroll and was spending the night with us. I was just finishing preparations for supper when I heard a loud noise. A couple of minutes later, the tornado sirens went off. We proceeded toward our landlord’s basement. I don’t believe my husband ever made it to the basement. Instead he was on the front porch trying to figure out where the tornado was.

Unlike today’s reliance on cell phones and the Internet for news, our main source of information was KVOE, the local radio station. Thus, we had the radio tuned in to find out what was going on. That’s when we heard that the tornado had hit the shopping center. Thinking that the tornado likely continued to the northeast, I was concerned about my parents’ home on 21st street West of Prairie street. Since my parents were at Lake Reading for the weekend, I wasn’t exactly sure who would be home but figured my brother and his fiance may have been at the house.

My brother shared the following memory of that evening:

I lived on 21st street and my fiancee and I were the only ones home at the time. We did not hear any siren but when the electricity went off my fiancee (wife) looked out the window and said she thought it was a tornado. I can’t say I saw a funnel but it was the blackest cloud I had ever seen. We took the dog and cat to the basement. We could hear some glass breaking and when we decided it was OK to leave the basement I went down my driveway in bare feet and started visiting with a neighbor from across the street. I hadn’t looked to the east until he said something and I couldn’t believe what I saw – a few houses east and major damage. I went back inside and got some shoes on and started walking around the neighborhood. A sheriff’s deputy stopped me and asked if I had a crescent wrench, which I did. He instructed me to go around the neighborhood and shut off the gas lines.

At the time, I was working as a ward clerk (glorified secretarial aide) at St. Mary’s Hospital. Part of staff training was the expectation that staff would report during a disaster. Thus, my husband dropped me off at the hospital while he and his brother went to check on my parents’ house.

They weren’t able to drive into the area from 15th and Prairie. However, they were able to get close by going thru the park. They found the worst damage at the East end of 21st Avenue (a little over 1 block East of my parents). A house on the corner had imploded. Another house had been lifted off of its foundation with a car dropped into the basement. A house on the cul-de-sac at the bottom of the hill had a 2×4 going thru the corner of the bedroom.

While walking into the neighborhood, they found my brother and his fiance. The four of them continued walking the neighborhood looking for those that needed help. They helped put a tarp on the roff of an Emporia State University biology professor’s house. He lived close to the 21st and Prairie corner. My husband remembers putting his foot thru the ceiling of their bathroom as they struggled to get the tarp on the roof.

Sometime that evening, my parents were able to make it home. I remember my father saying that he helped the placement director move stuff out of her home that night. My husband remembers my father telling of his ‘overnight security’ detail where he turned the governor away from the neighborhood.

Meanwhile, I was at St. Mary’s Hospital along with many of their employees, expecting to be put to work. As stated in the disaster plan, one-half of Emporia’s physicians had also reported to St. Marys. Unfortunately, triage failed that evening. The ambulances did not divide their patients evenly between the two hospitals. The ambulances, walking wounded and those being helped by neighbors showed up outside of Newman Memorial Hospital. Since Newman’s was overwhelmed, the physicians went to Newmans to help. Most of the extra nursing staff went home since they weren’t needed.

Since I had been dropped off, I was stuck at the hospital — with no information on my family. Knowing that their telephone lines were underground, I didn’t think the tornado could have damaged them. Thus, I tried calling, but the call didn’t go thru.

Thus, I was waiting on first floor for my husband when the tornado sirens sounded around 9 pm. The director of nursing (a nun) ran out of her office and grabbed me saying, “We need to get the kids in peds (pediatrics on 4th floor) to the basement.” So, we ran up the stairs to 4th floor, grabbed a child and ran back down to the basement where we comforted those scared children. Relief workers at the shopping mall on the West side of town confirmed seeing a storm cell. Rumor said that there was a tornado dancing over the top of the hospital. Fortunately, no tornado struck the building and we were able to return the children to their beds on 4th floor.

What are your memories of that night?