22 Apr TORNADO’S THAT I HAVE KNOWN
“I DON’T EVEN THINK I WAS QUITE A YEAR OLD. MY MOTHER WAS MAYBE SEVEN
MONTHS PREGNANT WITH MY LITTLE BROTHER. I WAS SUCKED OUT OF HER ARMS,
AND SHE LANDED 75 YARDS FROM OUR TRAILER AND HAD A RUPTURED DISC.
THE TORNADO SET ME DOWN ON TOP OF THIS PILE OF CORRUGATED LUMBER
AND SCRAP METAL.”
My first encounter with a tornado was around the age of twelve. We lived between Wichita and Goddard just off US 54 Highway. The tornado warning was out and a black line of clouds was west of us, we were out in the yard watching when the first funnel came down. Then another, and another, and another until there were seven funnels across the western sky. I do not remember going down to the basement or getting in the car and driving off. The closest damage was three miles away and I don’t remember the storm hitting us.
My next encounter was during harvest. I was a teenager and driving the wheat truck for my uncle and grandpa. We saw the whole western sky turn black and my uncle Charles was trying to cut out the low part of the field before the rain Grandpa was taking a load of wheat to Clearwater with the International pick-up. I laid down on the truck seat and soon heard the pick-up coming from the south being driven like I had never seen Grandpa drive before. He came into the field and slid to a stop by me. I said, “what is going on? He said, “turn around!” That black line of clouds had narrowed down and we could see that it was the biggest tornado in the world. At one point it was two miles wide. I knew that Uncle Charles would wait to the last minute and drive the combine in the shed. I had two dumps on my truck and needed to get it in the shed. The lane came out of the field right next to the shed and normally you had to turn, back up, and turn into the shed. To this day I do not know how I made that 360 degree turn but I put the truck in in one motion.
This tornado started on the ground just north of Lake Afton southwest of Goddard. It moved towards Goddard. The storm started to curve towards the southwest. On 183rd street one mile east of Goddard it started to move straight south. It was moving south up-rooting a hedge row. On the half mile line was a house. In the basement was the Thome girls from Thome Turkey farm. The turkey farm was a half mile south and just one tenth of a mile east on the south side of McArthur Road. A Goddard football player named Kent Moon saw the tornado coming and had just stopped to pound on the Thome’s door to tell them to take shelter. Not getting an answer he jumped in his car to try and get out of the path. He made it to the corner and abandoned his car. He held on to the last hedge tree and it was the only tree left standing, he survived. The tornado turned and picked up the farm house about six feet and put it on top of the milking parlor just across the drive to the west. It was figured that if the girls had gone down in the cellar they would not have survived.
There were several barns full of turkeys that was wiped out. Besides thousands of dead turkeys there were naked turkey walking around that the storm had stripped of their feathers. There were cows with 2×4’s sticking out of their sides. There was wheat straw that penetrated electric poles. Clarence Thome’s combine was rolled up like a wad of tin foil. Yet a neighbor drove his combine out of the tornado’s path and had no damage. Our harvest crew and neighbors gathered in the yard at my uncles and watched the storm coming our way. The tornado got narrower and narrower until it looked like a rope hanging in the sky. Then it looked like a pair of scissors cut the rope and it was gone. It had run right up to the side of Clearwater road and pulled up from the ditch and fell apart. That was exactly two miles west of us. Locals still refer to this storm as the Thome Turkey Farm Tornado.
My first official response to a tornado scene was when I started with the Wichita – Sedgwick County Civil Preparedness Heavy Rescue Unit. Our station was at 31st & Oliver just north of Boeing. The building was the old Plainview fire station and on the Wichita Fire Department training grounds. We were there for our weekly training. A heavy thunderstorm was coming through and there was a tornado warning. Monitoring the county frequency word came that a mobile home park had been hit on Greenwich road and they needed search teams and wreckers. We loaded up in our units and fired up the old military wrecker and responded. Upon arrival it was a mess. Only a portion of destroyed homes had been searched. I was inside a mobile home and came across a wall laying on a baby crib. I found out how much strength a person has when adrenaline kicks in. I lifted the wall and was happy that there was no baby in it.
I have many other tornado experiences but I promised you Willie Ricken’s tornado story. County Fire Station #5 was located on Andale road one half mile north of US 54. The Lieutenant in charge was Leon Thimmesch. Leon was off on vacation so Willie Ricken was acting Lt. Larry (Moose) Doss was the First Class, and a new hire vacation man was on duty. It was a sunny day and they were getting ready to barbecue steaks out back when the chief came on the radio. He called station five like it was an early warning station. He said, “they have a tornado watch out for the area now. Keep watch and let us know if you see anything!” The vacation man asked what they were supposed to do to stand watch for tornadoes? They laughed and told him to get on all of his turn out gear then climb the radio tower get on the roof over the bays, and keep watch. They were cooking steaks and laughing at the joke they were pulling on the new guy. Then they notice the tickle weeds blowing in a circle. Then the vacation man called down and asked, “Is that a tornado?” They were looking straight up the center of a funnel cloud. Willie yelled, “jump!” The kid jumped off the bay roof onto the concrete and did not hurt anything.
The tornado came down just across the fence on the east side of Andale road and went across country taking out a housing addition and a county bridge on Goddard road. For years Willie laughed and said that he did not know what he would have said to the ‘old man’ (the chief) had the vacation man been picked off the top of the station on ‘tornado watch’!
We lost Willie Ricken a short time ago. He was taken to the cemetery by fire truck and escorted by two Sedgwick County fire units. He was 90. I wonder if there is any Cross-Country car wax left?