Car 412: "412, Wichita. . ."
412: "412 ... I've got a tornado on the ground half a mile south of
Castleton, and it's moving northeast."
Radio: "O.K 412, tornado on the ground one-half mile
south of Castleton . . . we'll advise Weather. Keep an eye on it."
412: "Wichita, I'm following a large tornado ... this is
a large tornado."
Trooper Bob Wilson's voice was calm and steady as he called in his
report at 4:32 p.m. Tornadoes come with the territory on the Kansas
Highway Patrol, but Wilson had never seen one in 16 years on the road. For
years, he could only wonder what he would do if he saw a tornado, how he'd
react. On this day, wonder would become terror.
It was Tuesday, March 13, 1990, and tornadoes were sprouting by the
dozen along a storm front that stretched from Nebraska to Texas. The
Midwest was paying for several days of early 70-degree heat. As fate would
have it, Trooper Wilson was sitting smack in the front of the storm cell
that would produce the worst tornado of the day -- a monster cyclone of a
type rarely seen, even in "Tornado Alley." The storm would stay on the
ground for two hours, and at times, grow up to three-quarters of a mile
already been a busy day at the National Weather Service office in Wichita.
The short staffed and battle-weary forecasting team was putting in its
third straight day of overtime because of severe weather. Thunderstorm
warnings had been going out since 10 a.m. It was now going on 4:15 p.m.,
and the main line of storms was finally moving in from Oklahoma. Randy
Steadham, acting meteorologist-in-charge at "Wichita Weather," huddled
close to the radarscope and watched one storm cell balloon and break away
from the squall line south of Hutchinson. Steadham and his team decided to
issue a severe thunderstorm warning for southern Reno County.
Trooper Wilson, who had heard a report of golfball-sized hail, found a
blinding curtain of it as he headed south of Hutchinson on K-17. After a
few miles, the hail suddenly stopped, giving Wilson a clear view of a
pitch-black, anvil-shaped cloud about two or three miles away. Wilson
pulled off the road at the north fork of the Ninnescah River and
"I saw two
tails come out of that cloud...I'd say they came down about ten percent of
the way and just hung there for a short time," says Wilson. Then the two
tails merged at the very tips and became one as they touched down on the
ground. That's when I grabbed my camera and jumped out of the
started snapping black-and-white pictures with a camera he carried for
accident scene investigations. He kept snapping as the tornado grew wider,
and suddenly realized the twister was coming straight at him. After a
quick scramble to get out of the way, Wilson fell in behind the tornado,
and watched as it began to gouge out a path of destruction
Troop F Radio in Wichita, chief operator Charlie Steadman recognized the
intensity in Bob Wilson's calm voice. Steadman was on the statewide
closed-circuit emergency phone, relaying Wilson's reports on the twister's
position directly to "Wichita Weather". Forecasters began putting out
tornado warnings based on the information, and within minutes the warnings
were clattering across the teletypes of radio and TV stations. Other
patrol cars and agencies heard their information directly from their
police scanners, as Troop F Radio operator Larry Zimmerman repeated
traffic on the tornado's position.
of Bob Wilson's voice barely changed as he told Troop F the tornado was
now half a mile wide. Wilson was only a quarter-mile behind the storm --
so close, he could actually see the lumbering cyclone lose speed as it met
the resistance of hills and trees. An approaching farmhouse proved to be
no match; the tornado demolished the Royer family residence just outside
the town of Haven. Wilson pulled into the drive only seconds after the
storm had passed and dashed for the house, dodging a minefield of tree
branches, power lines, and an overturned tractor. He arrived to find one
occupant crawling out of a back window. When Trooper Wilson finally turned
to check the sky again, it looked as though the tornado had dissipated.
But the voices on the car radio told him the twister was still out
It was now
going on quarter to five. Sgt. Alan Stoecklein had been monitoring Trooper
Wilson's radio reports from his home in Haven, Kansas. When Stoecklein
heard the storm was headed straight for town, he called Reno County
dispatch and told them to blow the sirens. Fortunately, the storm skirted
to the west and north. Now, it was Stoecklein's turn to chase the
north on a blacktop road, Al Stoecklein quickly discovered one of the
storm's most unnerving habits: every so often the tornado would veer due
east, right into the path of his pursuing car. As big as the storm was,
judging the exact location of the funnel itself was hard. The swirling
vortex was shrouded in a dense curtain of heavy rain, hail, and dirt. On
several occasions, Stoecklein had to stop suddenly to avoid driving right
into the funnel.
raining real hard as it approached, " recalls Stoecklein, " and I was
going real slow. I couldn't see very far. All of a sudden, I noticed
the telephone poles ahead of me were snapping off. One of the poles had a
transformer on it, and I could see electricity arcing into the clouds.
Then I saw tree limbs and wood up in the air quite a ways, and they
were circling around. I knew then it was the tornado."
never any doubt that this storm was dangerous in the extreme. The network
of civilian and law enforcement storm spotters was working in high gear,
and all lines of communication were wide open. People in the storm's path
were getting ample warning, at least 20 minutes in most cases. The storm's
size and slow speed made it easy to follow, and its path predictable. But
sometimes, warning isn't enough. The Hesston Storm would claim two lives
on this day, the first near the town of Burrton, Kansas. The tornado
struck a rural farmhouse and collapsed the chimney and fireplace, sending
a deluge of bricks into the basement. Six-year old Lucas Fisher was killed
instantly as he huddled with family and neighbors.
At 5 p.m.,
a ringing telephone broke the din of the TV and the scanner at Sgt. Chip
Westfall's home in Newton, Kansas. It was Harvey County dispatch, "calling
all cars" as deadly peril approached from the southwest. The sky in Newton
was getting very dark. Radar on TV showed the tornado approaching the
county line, 18 miles away. The storm would be here in twenty minutes,
maybe less. Westfall sent his wife to pick up their son at the county
fairgrounds, along with with instructions for the 4-H leader to send the
other kids home. Westfall sent his other son to the basement, changed into
his uniform, climbed into his patrol car, and headed west on U.S. 50.
"When I cleared the west edge of Newton, I could see the main storm cloud
ahead," says Westfall. "When I topped the plateau west of town, I could
see the tornado eight to ten miles away."
Bob Harsh was already behind the tornado, chasing it east along U.S. 50,
and snapping pictures as he went. "It was so odd," says Harsh, "if you
were within a quarter mile of the tornado, that's where you would hit the
real hard rain and heavy hail. As soon as you moved behind it or off to
the side, it was clear. It was almost like you could drive right up beside
it because there wasn't any rain."
Sgt. Westfall had turned north off U.S. 50 at Halstead, Kansas. Westfall
drove about three miles and pulled over so the storm would cross the road
about a mile in front of him.
He knew from experience that he had to
keep his distance. Years before, when Westfall was a McPherson County
sheriff s deputy, a fellow officer had gotten too close to one tornado.
A drastic change in air pressure actually shut down the car's engine.
tornado turned sharply east, forcing Westfall to scramble for safety. "I
didn't want to take the time to turn around," says Westfall, "so I just
backed down the highway about half a mile to get away from it. And then chunks of ice -- not hail, but chunks -- started falling. It was
like someone was chipping them off a block. They were kind of flat shaped,
probably anywhere from the size of a golf ball to bigger than a
Westfall and Harsh tracked the tornado, they saw something that few storm
chasers witness. The tornado repeatedly regenerated -- shrinking
down to a quarter-mile diameter, with sudden surges back to half-mile or
three quarter-mile diameter. It was the kind of storm that was so strong,
it was actually self-sustaining, according to Randy Steadham, the
meteorologist at Wichita Weather. "Normally, tornadoes will develop and
then move away from their support," says Steadham. "This tornado was
getting continuous support. It fed on a constant supply of moisture that
just kept it going."
tornado was now on a more easterly path, and moving straight towards
Hesston, Kansas, a town of 3200 located just off I-135. Sgt. Westfall
called Newton County dispatch and told them to blow the sirens at Hesston,
and at two other towns within the tornado's reach. Back at Troop F Radio,
Charlie Steadman could hear the excitement rising in Chip Westfall's voice
as the storm churned closer and closer to Hesston. Westfall had to keep
his car windows rolled up so he could be heard over the roar of the
p.m. the sirens had already blown three times in Hesston. Unfortunately,
loud sirens do not ward off tornadoes like evil spirits. Chip Westfall
drove into town only minutes ahead of the twister to find the streets
deserted. The only other moving vehicle in sight was an ambulance. There
was nothing else to do now, but to get out of harm's way. "It took forever
for the storm to get to Hesston," says Westfall, "and it felt like it took
forever to go through."
radio logs show the tornado hit Hesston at 5:41 p.m. At 5:49, Sgt.
Westfall reported major damage. Ambulance and emergency crews swung into
action immediately. There were more than a dozen injuries in Hesston,
three of them serious. But there were also zero fatalities, a
testament to the dozens of spotters who had chased the storm, and to the
communications network that got the warnings out.
cell would continue to spawn large tornadoes for another hour. The last
would occur in the area of Council Grove, Kansas, some 120 miles from
where Trooper Bob Wilson had watched the birth of the first twister.
tornadoes are both legendary and commonplace, but this big twister was the
talk of the Sunflower State for days to come. Front-page pictures were
featured in newspapers statewide, and clips of a Wichita TV station's live
coverage of the storm were shown on CNN's Evening News.
tornado would also make an indelible impression on the men who had tracked
it that March afternoon:
Meteorologist Randy Steadham: "We did a survey the next
day and talked to some farmers -- Kansas farmers who have seen tornadoes
all their lives. One of the common statements I heard was they didn't know
what it was. It was like nothing they had ever seen."
Westfall: "I kept thinking it was going to lift up and so did
everyone else. When I first saw it, I knew it was a 'killer tornado' . . .
no doubt about it."
Troop F Radio: "What was fascinating to me was listening to the
descriptions of the storm, and all of the officers were saying the same
thing, 'it's big,
and it's on the ground.'
I could tell just by
listening to their voices this wasn't an ordinary tornado."
Wilson: "I just couldn't comprehend anything this big and
uncontrollable, and I felt so helpless. In a breaking situation,
everybody's thinking 'well I can do this,
I can do that'. You've got
some idea how to respond to things.
With this, you're facing a great
big, unbridled monster of nature, and there's nothing you can do but get
the hell out of the way."
* * *
The Author and Tpr. Bob Wilson meet at the 1991 National
Police Insignia Show in Kansas
After interviews with witnesses and a survey of storm
damage, experts concluded the Hesston tornado was actually a series of
storms. They also concluded the tornadoes produced were among the
strongest ever recorded.
Jeff Herzer was a member of the Missouri State Highway
Patrol Communications Division from 1987 to 2000. This article
appeared in the Summer, 1990 edition of The Missouri State