Archive for Friday, June 8, 2012

Topeka remembers 1966 tornado that killed 16

June 8, 2012, 11:44 a.m. Updated June 8, 2012, 3:18 p.m.


— As a native of Hawaii, Nancy Petty always had a deep respect for earthquakes and tidal waves, both of which she experienced as a child growing up in Honolulu.

But tornadoes?

"They were little whirling, spinning things that didn't stay on the ground very long," Petty said.

Then came the evening of June 8, 1966, when a killer tornado ravaged Topeka and changed the city forever.

Petty, who at the time was a 32-year-old married mother of five children living in a two-story house at the foot of Burnett's Mound in southwest Topeka, was home with her three young daughters.

Earlier in the day, her husband had dropped off the couple's two sons — Victor, then 10, and David, 8 — at a grandparents' home in Leavenworth as the family returned from a trip to the Ozarks.

Petty and her three daughters — Liana, 9, Tricia, 6, and Brenda, 1 — then were dropped off at their home at 3037 S.W. Burnett Road in Topeka, on the corner of S.W. Twilight Drive and Burnett Road.

Her husband headed off for duty at Fort Riley, where he served in the Army National Guard.

At the time, Petty was pregnant with the couple's sixth child, John, who was born on Nov. 15, 1966.

After her husband, the late Victor Russell Petty Jr., had gone to Fort Riley that afternoon, Petty set about cleaning the carpet of the family's new home. She went to a nearby Duckwall's store to pick up cleaning supplies.

Shortly before 7 p.m., Petty said, she heard tornado sirens but paid them little regard, as she was intent on finishing shampooing the carpet.

Suddenly, she said, she felt a strong breeze in her home and called to her daughter, Liana, to make sure she had shut a window, as Petty had instructed earlier in the evening.

"Yes, mother, I shut the window," Liana answered. Intent on proving her daughter wrong, Petty went to find the open window.

When she arrived in the room, Petty said, she found the window was closed. And worse yet, she could see a neighbor's house and debris flying toward her home down S.W. Twilight Drive.

In a matter of seconds, Petty grabbed her three children and headed downstairs, but it was too late.

The tornado struck her home, practically burying herself and her children in rubble, as they were on the stairway.

As the tornado passed through the neighborhood, Petty said, her baby, Brenda, "had all the wind sucked out of her."

The baby turned blue before regaining her breath, Petty said.

As the storm hit their house, Petty was prepared for the worst.

"I thought it was the end of everything," Petty said. "All I was thinking about was getting the girls out of harm's way."

Aside from some superficial cuts from a broken glass window near the home's front door, no injuries resulted to Petty and her daughters.

Neighbors came along minutes after the twister had passed and pulled Petty and her daughters out of the debris.

Petty and her children joined neighbors as they walked in shock through their devastated neighborhood.

Petty, now 77 and living in Jacksonville, Fla., said her home was destroyed, and later rebuilt at the same location.

She said she continues to think of others in Topeka who also suffered loss, including those who were killed.

The tornado, which was classified as an F-5 on the Fujita scale, struck Topeka at 6:55 p.m. and stayed on the ground for more than a half hour, cutting a half mile-wide swath that lasted 22 miles through the heart of the city.

The tornado tore through neighborhoods from the Burnett's Mound area of southwest Topeka through the Washburn University area through the downtown business district and into East Topeka, where some of the heaviest damage occurred.

The tornado then lifted into the sky about 7:29 p.m.

The twister left in its wake 16 dead and caused more than $100 million in damage.

Adjusted for inflation, the damage total would be in the neighborhood of $716 million in 2012.

Despite the damage and loss of life, many Topekans believe the number of casualties could have been much higher had people not sought cover.

Bill Kurtis, who was a newsman at WIBW-TV Channel 13 at the time, is credited with saving lives with his urgent warning that is now etched into the capital city's consciousness: "For God's sake, take cover."

It took years for the city to rebuild from the damage inflicted on it in a matter of 39 minutes that June night 46 years ago.

To this day, Petty said, she feels almost guilty for not paying heed to the tornado sirens and is grateful she and her daughters were spared from harm.

As for her daughters, they were traumatized by the event and nearly "lost it" when their school had its first tornado siren drill the next fall.

"I think they still are affected after all these years," she said, "every time they hear a siren going off."


Jean Robart 5 years, 4 months ago

It must have been terrifying! I still remembe3r my first tornado, also an F5 on the old scale that did a ton of damage in northwest Grand Rapids, Michigan April 3, 1956. The sight of that tornado is one i will never forget.

bladejhawk 5 years, 4 months ago

I watched the tornado with my father & 2 brothers from the top of our roof. My father mentioned that the tornado had not moved to the right or left, so it must be coming right at us!! We headed to the basement, and it missed us by about a mile, thank God! I will never forget the sight of that massive thing either!

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