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Archive for Wednesday, June 19, 1996

LAWRENCE RESIDENTS REMEMBER DEVASTATING TORNADO OF 1981

June 19, 1996

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Today marks a harrowing anniversary, as 15 years have passed since a tornado ravaged southwest Lawrence.

Fifteen years ago today, about 7:30 p.m., Elaine Schmidt was watching her patio table fly past her window.

One of the worst tornadoes in state history had picked it up, then slammed it into the side of her house, where it stuck.

Doors were flapping open, rain and winds were swirling, then it was gone.

"I don't remember sounds, it just happened so fast," Schmidt said. "I think it literally just formed right over us."

It was Friday, June 19, 1981, and a twister -- so severe President Reagan would declare its path of destruction a national disaster area -- stormed through southwest Lawrence. It destroyed homes, trees and lives.

Damage estimates topped $18 million, and Stanley Pittman, a 30-year-old Kansas University computer assistant, died when he was crushed by falling debris inside Kmart, 31st and Iowa. It was the first tornado fatality in Lawrence since 1911. Thirty-six others were injured.

Schmidt considers herself and her 5-year-old daughter, Stephanie, who was with her at home, among the lucky ones. Other than a misplaced patio table and a swimming pool full of barbecue grills and lawn furniture, damage to the Schmidts' Lazy Brook Lane home was relatively minor.

"I came back upstairs and the house across the street had no roof on it," she said.

Some houses were leveled.

The storm started just west of Kasold Drive, twisting from the city's outskirts through a heavily populated area surrounding Holcom Park, to Kmart and the Gaslight Village Trailer Park before heading out of town.

Schmidt's husband, Ron, and other daughter, Susan, were headed for Kmart that night to buy Stephanie a pair of thongs for her birthday. At the last minute, they decided to go to Payless Shoesource, 1300 W. 23rd.

Don Lehman, 2725 Lawrence Ave., remembered coming home the next morning to find the aftermath: a shredded roof and splintered walls. Lehman had been in Salina. His wife, Gretchen, and their 2-year-old daughter, Shannon, were in Overland Park.

"They didn't replace the house, but they probably should have," Lehman said.

Two lots to the south, the only thing left was a fireplace.

"It's amazing that 100 feet would make such a difference," he said.

Schmidt agreed that the tornado behaved strangely and said it made people behave strangely the next day.

One thing left standing in her yard was a blue and orange Fisher-Price slide. Afterward, an identical slide sat right next to it. She still doesn't know where it came from.

During clean-up, an odd form of humor helped some cope. Signs reading "Gone With the Wind" and "Open House" were placed in yards.

"I think they were trying to top each other," Schmidt said.

Now, 15 years later, Lehman said the summer movie "Twister" doesn't hold much appeal. He hasn't seen it, but his daughter has.

"She said it wasn't very realistic," he said.

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