30 years later, Lawrence residents remember 1981 tornado

Today marks the 30th anniversary of the 1981 tornado that appeared suddenly and struck southwest Lawrence.

It killed one man in the former Kmart store at 3106 Iowa, injured 33 others and caused an estimated $18 million in damage to homes and businesses.

Douglas County residents who survived the storm this week said that June 19, 1981, takes on added significance especially with the deadly tornadoes that have struck across the country this year, including in Joplin, Mo.

Earlier this year was also the 100th anniversary of the April 12, 1911, Lawrence tornado that moved through Lawrence in the evening hours from the southwest and struck downtown, killing two people.

Those involved in the 1981 tornado that killed 30-year-old Stan Pittman, a Kansas University computer assistant, said the impact of that storm created more caution and awareness in how Douglas County officials and residents prepare for severe weather.

Bob Newton

Newton, who has been active with the county’s emergency preparedness and emergency management agency for many years, looked at the sky that evening from his neighborhood in the 2700 block of Lawrence Avenue.

“We were not under a watch, no warning. It just didn’t look good,” said Newton, who was the KLWN radio operations manager at the time and would often go on the air during severe weather.

He dropped off his wife, Pat, at a neighborhood potluck dinner, and their children were home with a baby sitter. Newton was driving around looking at the ominous clouds when suddenly something happened near Kasold Drive and what is now Bob Billings Parkway.

“It just opened up, and there were chunks of ice falling out from the sky. The sky was green, and it was hailing like crazy,” he said.

He pulled under a bank drive-through lane for cover. An unmarked police car was already there. Then Newton started broadcasting on the air from his two-way radio reporting what he was seeing with the storm. Then suddenly he realized he wasn’t on the air anymore.

The police car zoomed away suddenly, and Newton heard the warning sirens sound. But the tornado had already carved a path through Lawrence basically from where Bishop Seabury Academy is today to the southeast across Kasold Drive through his neighborhood, and then damaging the former Kmart store on Iowa Street.

The twister also struck the Gaslight Village Mobile Home Park east of 31st and Iowa streets. And it had knocked debris onto the KLWN radio station, which at the time was also on Iowa Street.

Newton headed home to make sure his children were OK. They had gone into the basement and were not injured, but their house, which they had lived in for only three months at the time, sustained damage. The Newtons still live there today.

After lots of cleanup in following days, Newton said it was evident Lawrence residents had no warning. That was before the National Weather Service had begun frequently using Doppler radar.

“Even though there’s been advancements in technology, they still have to start somewhere, so that’s still a risk,” Newton said.

Typically most severe storms that hit the Lawrence area develop farther west across the state and are tracked for hours, but that day the development was sudden. Newton said emergency management officials have worked on policy changes since 1981, and people seemed to be more aware and cautious of severe weather after that day.

The 2003 tornado that struck the Aberdeen Apartments in southwestern Lawrence was tracked for nearly a half hour, he said.

“No one can be complacent and think it won’t happen here,” he said, “because it has.”

Diana Bretthauer and Rachelle Ziesenis

Bretthauer and Ziesenis, who are neighbors south of Eudora, both happened to be in the Kmart store that evening.

Ziesenis said it was sunny outside but very humid when she left her car in the parking lot with her mother, Rose Steffey, and niece, Jaime Ziesenis, who was 3. About five to 10 minutes later as Rachelle Ziesenis was trying on clothes in a fitting room, the electricity went out.

Ziesenis walked out and saw people running to the back of the store in a panic.

“I literally walked out in the middle of a tornado,” she said.

She ran into her mother and niece in one of the aisles. They clutched each other mostly so the 3-year-old would not get sucked into the force of the storm, Ziesenis said.

Her mother’s shoes flew off her feet, and Ziesenis had also lost her sandals at some point. Ironically, as they started to crawl to the back of the store when things calmed down, they had to move over a pile of shoes.

Stan Pittman was killed by falling debris in the store, which sustained heavy damage.

Bretthauer and her husband, Ben, and son, Darrin, who was 2, were at the back of the store, and she felt pieces of glass striking her. She worried they were all going to be injured.

“I looked down and we were not even bleeding. It was insulation,” Bretthauer said.

They were able to go home about 30 minutes later, they said, as emergency workers began sorting through the debris.

About nine months later, Ziesenis returned to the store and bought a T-shirt that said: “I survived the Kmart Tornado.”

Bretthauer said many people involved in the storm heeded warnings more after that tornado.

“We didn’t go into the basement hardly at all,” she said. “But we’ve been to the basement quite a few times since then.”

Paul Taylor and Floyd Craig

Taylor, who was a paramedic for the Douglas County Ambulance Service, was off duty, but once he heard the sirens, he reported in. Taylor, who is now a retired paramedic and an associate pastor at Mustard Seed Church, was sent to help at Kmart and the mobile home park.

He wasn’t prepared for the eerie sight. Debris was strewn everywhere.

It wasn’t funny then, but as Taylor was searching in the dark for people inside the wreck at Kmart, he scared himself several times because he would notice pieces of mannequins in the debris.

“You had no idea how many people were still in there,” he said.

Pittman died. Several people had gone by personal vehicles to the hospital. Other than that, Taylor said, a few people were treated at the scene.

Floyd Craig, who has volunteered as a Douglas County storm spotter since 1975, remembers hustling from his North Lawrence home that evening once he heard a roar. As he drove across Lawrence, hail started falling near 21st and Louisiana streets. He eventually made it into the mobile home park and saw mass destruction.

He and four other spotters started walking through the park and shutting off the utilities to damaged homes to avoid anything catching fire. Craig had nightmares about the destruction for a good period after.

“It was just something that hits very close to home,” Craig said. “Lawrence is my home.”

Initially responders feared it could have been much worse, although Pittman’s death gave the 1981 tornado a tragic note, said Taylor, who still serves as a chaplain for Lawrence-Douglas County Fire Medical and other public safety agencies.

“I think it has served to raise awareness about training and financial support,” Taylor said. “I think it has had a long-standing ripple effect, and I think it probably directly helped us prepare for the (2006) microburst. That probably has helped us be more prepared today.”