Vancouver's killer tornado: Readers share their memories

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1972 Tornado Anniversary

Columbian readers shared their memories of the tornado of 1972.

The teacher at Walnut Grove

I have vivid memories of that day as somewhat of a participant.

I was a teacher at Walnut Grove Elementary School when the tornado ended in the neighborhood just east of the school’s playground. Homes of our students were damaged, a fact which hasn’t been mentioned to my knowledge in the current newspaper stories. I remember that we were told to go to the interior walls of the school and turn the lights out. We had no idea what was happening. I remember the intense pressure felt as the tornado unknowingly was going through the neighborhood. I remember staring out the bank of windows on the east side of the old school across the playground to the cyclone fence and the housing beyond. I did not see anything, however.

My next memory was the school buses finally coming to take our students home. We were still unaware of all that had happened due to phones being down due to power being lost south of us at the supermarket. My next memory is poignant. A teacher had run from Lewis Jr. High School to check on his wife who taught with me at Walnut Grove. He knew about the damage and deaths and left us all in shock with the news. Because the road was closed to the south, I had to drive north to 78th, east to 162th, south to Mill Plain and west to the neighborhood near Andresen where my 1-year-old daughter was in day care. All that time, I had no way of knowing for sure if my daughter was OK since the tornado had crossed McLoughlin Heights just west of there.

Walnut Grove housed many of the Peter S. Ogden students for the rest of the school year. My co-first-grade teacher and I had to move ourselves and our 45 students into one classroom for the remainder of the school year. The next year, our population remained high as we continued to house many of the Peter S. Ogden students until their new school was completed. I remember how a senior teacher who had gone through the tornado was severely traumatized but did continue to teach at Walnut Grove. She never went back to the new Peter S. Ogden School.

My neighbor, a lady in Cascade Park, was injured and hospitalized for a time due to injuries at the bowling alley. I believe she had a young child in the daycare, but can’t remember for sure.

I still have all the newspaper coverage from the tornado. Years later, I used to share the story of the tornado with my own fourth grade students when doing a weather unit. There continues to be a lot disbelief that it could have ever happened here.

I am now retired after teaching 35 years in the Vancouver and Evergreen school districts.

-- Sandy Hayslip

Seeing trees bent at right angles

I was driving on Andresen Road from Mill Plain heading toward Fourth Plain. When I got to 18th St. I suddenly changed my mind and decided to head west there instead of Fourth Plain. At that time there were many tall evergreen trees along the south side of the road and hillside. Suddenly they were all bent over at right angles. I could hardly believe my eyes and in shock said, “What is going on?” to my 15-month-old daughter (as if she would know)!

I stopped briefly at Fred Meyer and the lights went out, then proceeded on to the intersection of Grand Avenue & Fourth Plain. I couldn’t get through for awhile as every police and emergency vehicle in the city with sirens blaring converged there heading east.

That evening I was shocked to learn that a tornado had been moving over us on 18th St. and, had I not “suddenly changed my mind,” would have been in the disaster zone at the time it touched down.

-- Kathy Hitchcock

‘Most terrifying thing’

I was a fifth-grader when this happened. I was watching the sixth-graders coming in from recess and watching the door swing open wide and hail the size of golf balls were coming down. The teacher told all of us to get under our desks after that I remember I ran with the other kids to a field opposite of Fort Vancouver High School. Then we were picked up and taken to the high school where we stayed till our parents came. That was the most terrifying thing I ever experienced.

Thank you for letting us share.

-- Juli Kern Simmons

‘Laurie was buried under bricks’

I read the (Columbian) article today and I was shaking remembering that day at PSO Elementary. We were in the middle of math class when the hail started and we could see that the flag pole was bending back and forth from the force of the wind. Then the old windows started to blow open. Chris Cheek, had got up and was trying to shut them, but as he shut one another one would open. Our classroom faced north so we could not see the tornado coming. So the teacher tells us to watch the storm and forget about math for a moment, since we were all so distracted by the windows and the large pieces of hail that were coming down. Then a huge oak tree, to the left of us, fell into Mr. Belcher’s classroom and that was when our teacher told us to get out.

I remember leaving the classroom and looking back just as the roof lifted and fell in. Luckily my entire class had gotten out when that happened. I decided to wear a mini dress that day and as I fell, I remember thinking how my dress had blew up and my underwear was showing, when a huge board with nails in it blew over me. We ran across the field to a plumbing shop across from Kmart. One of the workers took pity on me, since I was shivering, and gave me his old dirty plumber’s coat to wear. I was then taken to Fort Vancouver High School and was sitting on the bleachers when I saw my dad come in, and that was when I started to finally cry. He had ridden over through a barricade on his motorcycle. We then went down 18th street to Laurie Fisher’s house, she was my best friend. Her parents were in a panic because she and her brother, Tony, had not been found yet. Later we found out that they were both in different hospitals. Tony had a few minor injuries but Laurie had been in the gym that day and was buried under the bricks, and the Fort students had dug her out. She had both her legs broken and had to be put in casts from her waist to her ankles. One of my friends, Brenda Moore, found my red coat in the rubble; she knew it was mine because of the black fur trim. My dad and I went back to the plumbing shop days later because he wanted to try and find the man you gave me the coat so he could thank him and give it back. But we were unsuccessful so he kept it and used it when he worked on his car.

-- Cherie Mortazavi

Remembering the berry farm

In 1972, my family was safely located in Hockinson – far away from the tornado. It was a windy day, but we were still all shell-shocked when we heard the news about the Waremart collapse due to the tornado. The reason we were shell-shocked, and this was especially poignant to our family, was because in the fall of 1970, my great-grandmother, Gladys Lippert sold her berry farm where Waremart (and now Value Village) was located. My dad, mom, sister and I all lived on her berry farm also. In October of 1970, we all moved to Hockinson after the sale of the berry farm. She moved with us living next door until she died in 1981. I will still never forget how upset my great-grandmother was after learning about the tornado touching down where we had lived just 18 months prior to the tornado!

-- Carol Taylor

It still affects our community

I am the granddaughter of Glennes Davie, sister of victim Luila Clevidence and children of the twister. I want you to know how much this event changed not only the lives of my grandmother and her other close relatives, but our extended family as well. There is never a time that I go into Value Village without feeling shivers, or falling just a little short of breath on my way in. There is still a black and white picture hanging on our wall of three angry babies, and it is pretty much all I know of that part of the family. I don’t know if you’ll share this, but I do want you to know that just because this tragedy hit almost 20 years before I even was born, it still affects our family - and entire community - and always will.

-- Haley

Fifth grade student recalls events

What seemed to be just a normal sunny day sure did not stay that way. We were at lunch recess and all the kids were playing games, baseball or just being kids, I’m guessing it was about 10 minutes before recess was over that when the teachers whistles blew to get us all back inside. It had started to rain about 5 minutes earlier and the black clouds were getting bigger and moving our way, bright sky on one side and dark clouds on the other. I recall that as we got under the cover of the front of our classroom wing it turned from a heavy rain to hail, which I believe it let up for a short time once we got inside Mr. Erickson’s fifth-grade classroom.

We were to get ready to go to the gym for an assembly. I recall hearing the pounding of the hail again and looked over to the window wall to see very heavy hail shower. I was close to the classroom door so I went over and looked out that little window to the paved play area between the north and south wing, the hail was bouncing off the blacktop and I also recall the sky was just black and very little visibility. As I was watching the hail fall it suddenly changed from normal size to about -inch diameter, then to the size of golf balls, they were bouncing at least 2 or 3 feet after hitting the ground. Total chaos just bouncing all over and the noise inside the classroom was real loud as well. Pounding loud like I have never heard before. I yelled to Mr. Erickson that I wanted to go out to the courtyard and grab a couple of the hail balls.

He yelled back “NO! Stay inside!”

I did what he said but stayed by the front door, then I heard a skylight window break, then suddenly another! Mr. Erickson yelled to all if us to get into the walk-in closet, as he was getting the other kids to get back in the closet and more windows continued to break as I again looked outside the door window toward the gym.

I couldn’t help but think how black that cloud was or how close it seemed, something I had never witnessed before. Within seconds it hit the gym and ripped the roof off and sent rather large and small pieces of it up very high in the air and heading straight toward us! I turned and yelled to Mr. Erickson, “The gym roof blew!” Not a second later very large sections of the building were being slammed down into the grass playground just outside our window wall and rolling away from us. It was total pandemonium. Huge pieces of building, small shrouds of splinters, paper, glass, add to it the darkness, you name it, stuff was flying everywhere!

Then I heard Mr. Erickson yell at me to get in the closet. I was about 3 feet from the closet entrance still at the classroom door. I ran to the other closet entrance and continued to watch the destruction unfolding outside while looking thru the window wall, the rumbling kept getting louder and I could feel the ground trembling. Then suddenly the ceiling over our heads lifted up about 2 feet, then dropped back to the top of the walls. It lifted again and broke in half right at our classroom and was carried away also to land into the playground. The wind inside the classroom was blowing in a circle loaded with everyone’s school papers.

The wind just died down and there was total silence. Some of the kids were crying. Some were in shock. The teacher asking if everyone was OK. Then there was a loud creaking sound, then another as the entire window wall of the whole wing just fell to the outside of the classroom.

As we emerged from the closet I remember hearing Mr. Erickson yelling be careful as some of us were heading for the window wall to get out. I recall seeing all the broken glass and picking my steps through it to get out to the playground, I don’t recall who it was but I remember someone saying we needed to go around the sixth-grade class and head to the street. Once Greg and I got to the street we came across some downed power lines and had to pick our way through them. I believe then someone told us to head across the farmer’s field to the building about 100 yards away so we did as we were told, on the way I looked back over to the school and all the sudden there was my dad on his old white Ford station wagon driving to the school to look for us. I yelled but knew it was no use so I continued to the building. Once there we were moved inside an office and we were all instructed to sit on the floor, some kids were visibly upset, and talking about what had just happened. Was it a tornado? Then an announcement, someone said there was another tornado on the way, that ended up being a false alarm though and once things got organized enough we were all transported to the Fort Vancouver High School to meet up with our parents to be taken home. I was amazed at the response of the high school students. If not for them, things would have been so much worse.

Once at the high school I found my dad and, boy, was he relieved to see I was OK. I also remember going up a little knoll to look back at the elementary school and see the destruction again before we left for home. That is the moment when the magnitude of what happened really hit me. I remember getting goose bumps and I started to shake a little as I was looking at the devastation and all the people moving about at the school.

The drive home was just an unreal experience, just total carnage everywhere. Once home I had to take a look around the house, relieved to see that everything was fine. Later that night I learned that one of my neighborhood friends from the Country Club Village was apparently caught outside and was picked up and carried across the playground and thrown against the northern most baseball diamond backstop fencing and was in the hospital. That was a sad moment to add to all the news broadcasts learning just how bad things really were and how fortunate the students in my class were. The elementary school had no fatalities, thankfully, but we did have some very serious injuries and our community suffered some loss.

About a week later my dad and myself stopped at the school and were able to walk around and take pictures. While I can no longer read it in the pictures, on one of the chalk boards someone wrote the following: “Peter S. Ogden. Died April 5th 1972.”

-- Mike Lund

Three sisters in school

I was in the sixth grade, my sister Cheryl was in the fourth grade and my sister Melody was in the first grade on the day the tornado destroyed our school.

We had finished our lunch (wiener wraps, tater tots and baked beans) when the bell rang to end the lunch recess. Most of the school was inside preparing to go to the gymnasium for an all-school spelling bee except for the sixth-grade students and teachers who were still outside.

The sixth-grade students were team-taught by three teachers, Mr. Kennedy, Ms. Cheek and Ms. Griffin in a separate quad building and today our teachers were a bit late returning from lunch to open the doors. We didn’t mind because we had more time to play. I was standing about 10 feet from the locked door under a covered walkway in a circle of about six girls and we were looking at the clouds and chatting about how dark and unusual they looked and how they were moving extremely fast and looked scary. I commented that maybe we would have a storm and get to go home from school early that day which of course was just a joke at the time.

It was a surreal “Wizard of Oz” moment as we all watched, stunned, as the tornado approached us whirling everything into a huge circle. In actuality everything happened really fast, but at the same time, time seemed to be standing still and things appeared in my mind to be happening in slow motion. The clouds were moving and it was apparent to everyone that this storm was different than the usual Vancouver weather.

After this, things happened really fast. The wind and rain turned into hail as our teachers arrived to open the doors. The hail was coming at us sideways the size of golf balls and stung and hurt our skin as it pelted down on us. The door I was at was opened by Mr. Kennedy and it twisted back from the wind like a piece of clay being twisted by a giant’s hands at which time I saw entire roofs flying over the upper playground and past the tetherball poles as the kids still on the playground were desperately running in what seemed like super slow motion towards the sixth-grade building. I was having trouble comprehending what was actually happening and trying to decide whether or not to run inside the building and go under my desk or stand in the doorway which I had just learned a week prior in history class was the strongest part of a building and where you should stand in the event of a hurricane. Fortunately, I chose the doorway as other kids rushed by and got under their desks, I watched the ceiling crash down on my desk.

One of my teachers had opened a door on the opposite side of the quad which allowed wind to go through so only a quarter of the sixth-grade quad collapsed. After the storm ended I walked through the building and out this door on the other side, which was located at the front of the school. I looked at the school, the office, the circular driveway and was in shock at seeing it destroyed with huge beams down in the gymnasium where most of us would have been in less than 15 minutes for the spelling bee. It was an eerie, strange moment when you would think things would be loud and chaotic but instead there was a huge silence because everyone was still in shock and no one had reacted out loud yet. I saw lots of kids with red hands and red faces and thought that they must have been finger painting when the storm hit but then realized it was blood, not paint.

My thoughts then went to “Where are my sisters? Are they okay?” I found my youngest sister Melody and we began to walk across the street and through the muddy lettuce fields toward Andresen Road. We found my sister Cheryl in the middle of the lettuce fields and then started walking hand in hand through the mud towards our house. The mud was thick, deep and gross with manure which didn’t matter because we just wanted to go home. There were kids straggling and wandering all over the place dazed and confused. Everyone was saying there was going to be another tornado and freaking out so when we got to the other side of the lettuce field there was a large group of kids with no clue where to go or what to do. With the threat of another tornado coming, I decided we needed to seek shelter immediately so my sisters and I along with about large group of other kids that were with us went up to a closed business door and convinced them to let us in to protect us (we thought) from the next tornado. We were in this office (which my sister Cheryl remembers as being a plumbing company) for what seemed like hours before we were allowed to leave and reunite with out frantic parents.

We were petrified to sleep in the second story of our house for months and the wind still bothers my sister. The bowling alley where my friend Rick Graser’s mother was killed rescuing children and the Waremart store were both destroyed too. My neighbor Joe Whalen was hospitalized for what seemed like weeks because he was on the playground when a board with a nail flew by and punctured him in his kidney. It was a miraculous day in that all the students from Fort Vancouver High School actually watched the tornado hit our school and immediately ran over to assist and rescue all of the people in Peter S. Ogden from what could have killed many more than the seven that died that day. No one from PSO died that day and I believe it is largely because of the quick response of FVHS kids (where I graduated from).

-- April (Preston) Braley

‘I saw the entire roof of the school suspended in air’

I was in the fourth grade and our class had just entered our classroom in the long row of classrooms at the western end of Peter S. Ogden. As we shuffled to get to our seats I noticed a thunderous noise and looked outside to see the biggest hail storm I had ever seen. I was drawn to the windows with all of the other kids. It seemed like the hail was the size of golf balls. The sky was completely black and as I looked off in the distance I saw a funnel cloud swirling and moving slowly toward the school. I had never seen a tornado so I did not even know to be afraid. As it got closer the wind whipped harder and you could see debris flying through the air. All at once the roof was lifted off the building and as I looked skyward I saw the entire roof of the school suspended in air. At that moment it came crashing down and I dove for a desk. When it was over, the school was flattened around me and I could hear people calling for us to get out. Someone came and moved debris and I crawled out and over the rubble. We were hearded toward the fields near the school and ran to a nearby building where there was shelter. We were told to get down on the floor. We were so scared a boy next to me got sick and I couldn’t move away because it was wall to wall kids and we knew we couldn’t go outside because everything was a mess. I’ll never forget that day and every year I pause to remember. The wind still scares me to this day.

-- Cheryl (Preston) Ellington

Connected to victims

On that day, my husband Paul and I had picked up our 8-year-old son David from Kaiser hospital in north Portland. He was coming home in a waist high body cast suffering from a broken femur bone. As we crossed the Columbia slough bridge near Waddle’s restaurant, high winds and hail slammed our car nearly into the bridge railing. We turned off at the end of the bridge and went behind the Safeway store and parked for protection. When it became calm, we crossed the Interstate bridge and headed east toward Camas. I saw a path of debris and my first thought was that an airliner had come through and crashed. At home, as we heard the story on TV, I was so shocked and saddened to see Sharon Graser’s name as a fatality. Years earlier, she and her new husband, Marvin, had been my next-door neighbor in a north Portland apartment complex. Her grandmother, Rose, and grandfather, Dick, also lived in that complex. Her grandma Rose was my baby sitter for my older son when my husband was in Korea. Sharon was a very beautiful young woman and had a beautiful family. Grandma Rose said to me later, “It’s such a tragedy, she was so full of life.” I can still picture her perfectly, with her beautiful smile.

-- Phyllis Moretz

Lived through tornado in bowling alley

The tornado story came very close to me as I took the most severe injuries of anyone who lived through it. My daughter and I were in Sunrise Lanes when it hit. She was in the nursery so I ran to rescue her. Sharon Graser and I both ran to the corner to get Wendy as she bolted away from the group of children. In that time the ceiling had exploded and came whirling around the room. A piece cut through the wig I was wearing down into the skull. It also hit my face breaking three jaws and facial bones. We reached Wendy and turned to run when the solid concrete wall fell breaking four transverse processes and damaging a kidney. My face required a long surgery to repair and post-op, I threw four pulmonary embolisms.

Since that time, I divorced and re-married and therefore was lost. Thank heavens, we lived, but April weather and wind storms always bring back bad memories.

-- Lynne H. (Pierce) Barnes

Airplane flew through storm

On April 5, 1972, I was a passenger on a commercial prop plane, traveling back to Portland from Medford. We had the unique experience of encountering the tornado mid-air. It was a challenging ride, as I had to lean forward over our 3-month-old baby so she wouldn't become airborne (no baby seats then), and comforting the other two children, one of whom seemingly passed out from the air pressure changes. The pilot valiantly managed to keep the plane on course, more or less, as we swerved, dived and shook severely. As we came down over the Columbia River, it looked like a swirling, foamy expanse of chocolate. We could see debris on the ground, perhaps it was the store or school that had been damaged. Finally we were on the ground and wobbling to the airport terminal. Getting closer, we saw that the entire side of the terminal building was missing, blown away by the tornado... people were filing out of the building onto the tarmac and coming toward us, arm linked to arm, forming a human chain to help us to shelter.

Someone said that the pilot showed great skill in keeping the prop jet under control, more or less manually. If it had been a larger aircraft, perhaps he would have failed to control it as well... (a manual transmission on a car compared to a fully automatic transmission...interesting theory).

Over the years, I've tried to find out who that pilot was and thank him (or her !)

-- Carol Petrone