Archive for Sunday, June 19, 2011

30 years later, Lawrence residents remember 1981 tornado

June 19, 2011


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.”


shadowbox66044 7 years ago

Is this a joke? For real Journal Wold, you only put up 3 pictures? Come on! This was a big deal in Lawrence, and all you can find is 3 pictures? What a joke!

shadowbox66044 7 years ago

and by Journal Wold...I mean, Journal Wold!

RoeDapple 7 years ago

Yeah, I have that poblem too at this hour . .

RoeDapple 7 years ago

and by poblem . . . I mean poblem!

John Gibson 7 years ago

I was working at KMart that night and remember it well. We took as many customers to the back stockroom area as we could before the tornado hit the store. I ended up behind a counter of glassware with a friend and fellow employee but neither of us were hurt. Those of us that went back to the store the next day ended up in the culvert along 31st street due to more storms since there was nowhere in the store to go for safety at that time. We worked several weeks cleaning while wading in water and debris. The stories we heard later of survival still amaze me. One says people climbed in the ice machine at what was a convenience store across 31st street. The store received extensive damage but the ice machine was left intact and all inside survived. And yes, I still have one of those t-shirts that says I survived that tornado. I also have several pictures I took inside the store packed away somewhere.

Scott Morgan 7 years ago

More pictures more pictures Wismo want more pictures...........

grandnanny 7 years ago

What a harrowing experience you had in the 1981 tornado. I just today read an account of the Joplin tornado in the KC Star and both accounts are eerily similar in some ways. Luckily, you and the city of Lawrence faired much better than Joplin, but for those of you who lived through it, the memories will always be there. These muggy days and stormy nights remind me why I have a basement.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 7 years ago

I recall driving through south campus sometime shortly before the tornado hit. As I drove by the fieldhouse, the winds were so strong that the rain was moving very visibly horizontally. I had been in SW Lawrence just a few minutes earlier.

funkdog1 7 years ago

My family was camping (in a tent) at Clinton Lake that night. We didn't know about the tornado until a ranger told us the next morning.

sourpuss 7 years ago

I remember that my dad, a firefighter, had to go back to work (he had the day off) to help with the emergency services. The wall at K-mart had collapsed and southwestern Lawrence was torn up. At the time, we lived in the apartments behind Kroger on 23rd (now Dillions) and the basement had spiders!

Jonathan Kealing 7 years ago

I added three more photos to the gallery. And they're in color.

kernal 7 years ago

Snowing in Winter Park and Leadville today!

cglang 7 years ago

I remember this day very well, I had moved back to Kansas the prior summer and had just moved into a new trailer at Gas Light Mobile home park. My trailer was one of the lucky ones, myself and my daughter as well. My trailer was the first trailer on the right at the far east entrance, the present entrance now. Across the driveway entrance from trailer 3 other trailers were not so lucky, gone! I was in my trailer at the time and the tornado pulled up after taking out those trailers, went over mine and dropped again several trailers down from mine. My trailer shifted and tree limbs came through my living window. I crawled with my 2 yr daughter under me to the bathroom, I could not get out of my trailer in time. I had been at the laundry mat at the corner across from K Mart, next the convenience store, I had gone back to the trailer to close windows because of the storm coming. I had not idea it was going to turn into a tornado I never heard sirens to get out in time.

It was really strange going back to the laundry mat to get the only cloths we owned and the dryers were the only thing left standing in the laundry mat. I would have never thought to jump into a dryer if we had stayed there to ride out a tornado. The convenience store next to the laundry was gone too except coolers, people jumped in there and made it. When I got to the laundry mat area, some people were looking for us in the rubble, they said they saw me in the laundry mat but did not see me leave. Our cloths were in the dryer, gravel and dirt with but still there. Just very grateful to have survived.

Moved out of a trailer asap and never lived in one since!

pace 7 years ago

I manned a Salvation Army van, gave out sandwiches, fruit, coffee and water. We sat up within hours. the van came from Topeka, and sandwiches and supplies were replenished twice from a woman driving from Topeka. I met great people that day. One woman brought a giant pan of soup, home made with a slight dill flavor. It was great soup, gone in an hour. Another guy brought some ice cream bars, They were a hit. We were parked just north of KMart.

JS82 7 years ago

My future wife and I were sitting in the restaurant in front of K-Mart when the tornado came through. It blew out the windows of the restaurant (can't remember the name) and cut those who were sitting near the windows. We did not realize it had struck until someone told us that the K-Mart was damaged. We were both thankful that it missed us with a direct hit.

jhawkinsf 7 years ago

I too lived in the trailer park across the street, but was at work when the tornado hit. That was just off 27th. and I remember looking up and seeing the rotation. My job had a basement and that's where we went.

BigPrune 7 years ago

I remember the umpires at Holcomb stopped the games and told everyone to go home after they spotted a funnel cloud coming down.

Paula Kissinger 7 years ago

Remember it very well. A friend was visiting me from Kansas City and I was living in a beautiful new double-wide in Gaslight Village. I heard it...I knew it was coming. I looked out the window and saw that the sky was green and darkening. It hit the southwest side of the trailer park and jumped mobile was literally untouched. It lasted only a few seconds and then the sirens went off. The phone rang and it was the police department telling me that I needed to come in to was my day off. I told them I thought I could do more good here searching through the area for injured and those that needed help. That is what I cut-off blue jean shorts, a tank top, a ball cap and a badge. I helped move debris and tend to those who were hysterically upset and, fortunately, not too wounded. It was pretty chaotic. I have no idea what the folks in Joplin went through because what happened here really pales to their experience. We were very fortunate here to not have had more people injured.

Toto_the_great 7 years ago

What size tornado? F3? Had tornado classifications been developed yet?

fromlarryville 7 years ago

Back then I didnt think it was that big of a deal, I was at the Cinema Twin with the Johnson O'Malley youth group. The movie theater was just about 100 yrds or so south of K-Mart and K-Mart was hit on the southwest side. After all these years it finally clicked that we were soo lucky that the tornado missed us. It clicked when seeing all the damage this year around the country and what a tornado can really do to a building. Prayers for all that have lost someone or their homes or even both this year! Oh and we were there to see Clash of the Titans! lol!

Mike Ford 7 years ago

I was on the way to Baldwin City to see grandparents from Manhattan.We saw the debris in Gaslight and the damaged front of K-Mart. Two years later we were stuck in the White Lakes basement in Topeka during a tornado warning in Topeka. Quite a change from Louisiana.

Armored_One 7 years ago

Funny thing is that my mother and I were just talking about this tornado two or three days ago. We were living in Gaslight when the tornado hit. Thankfully my grandfather and uncle had come out the week before, according to mom, and set the tie down straps in concrete and tightened them up.

We lost the little carport thingie for our trailer, but that was it, other than apparently a wading pool I had. The trailers on either side of us were gone. One was a couple of streets over, upside down on someone's trailer and the other just disintegrated. Only thing I remember is the sound it made. Still have nightmares once in a very great while about that sound.

I doubt she has any pictures left, since mom went through the F5 that hit OKC, but I will see if she has any at all, since I know she took a bunch of pictures.

Sharon Aikins 7 years ago

I was in the theater next door to KMart. I remember the sky being the weirdest green color before going in but all the watches and warnings had been cancelled so told myself I was being a sissy. Everything went dark a few minutes after going in. After I felt my way to the lobby I was amazed to see everyone standing right in front of the big plate glass windows. I ducked back into the hallway. Funny thing was, I had been in KMart just before going to the movie and where I lived wasn't touched at all.

kernal 7 years ago

Last night, the NWS put Eastern KS in a 7 Tor-Con for today; still there earlier this morning.

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