Vancouver's killer tornado: Mom’s heroics remembered by sons

By Paul Suarez, Columbian web producer

Published:

 

April 5, 1972, started like any other day for brothers Rick and Russ Graser. That was until a tornado tore through the two’s elementary school and took the life of their mother, who was working in a bowling alley ravaged by the storm.

“We didn’t have time to prepare for this,” said Russ, 50, of Vancouver. “We went to school in the morning. By noon our lives were upside down.”

Their mom, Sharon Graser, was working at Sunrise Lanes watching the children of mothers in the bowling league. She died when the ceiling collapsed and crushed her. She had just handed off the last of 15 kids she was watching to someone outside the rubble, said Rick, now 52, of Moses Lake.

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Randy Graser, who was in the bowling alley with his mom, remembers this about the tornado.

“She looked out the window and she closed the blinds and told all of us children — there were 15 children — and told us to get under these big maple tables as all of a sudden all hell broke loose. It sounded like a hundred freight trains and then there was screaming and walls started collapsing. It was pure chaos.

“My mother thought of children instead of herself and just started grabbing children and running them outside. Then she was running back in grabbing more children. … She thought that there was one more child but there wasn’t, and that is when another wall fell on her back and crushed her. I was in a police car at that time. They took me to a nursing home and then to a foster home because I was in shock.

“My dad thought I was dead under the rubble and he finally came to get me at 7:30.”

“To do what she did, I think was an instinctive thing,” he said. “She didn’t think of the dangers she just wanted to get those kids out of there.”

Russ said his uncle once told him, “Your mom was born to do what she did.” She was born for that moment, Russ said. That’s something that stuck with him over the years.

Rick was a sixth-grader when the tornado hit. He said he had a front-row view of the storm.

He was playing center field after lunch when he noticed the southern horizon near Portland was looking dark.

Within 15 minutes, he said, the clouds were starting to move fast towards Vancouver. There was no breeze, no wind.

“As the clouds kept moving in and moving in, it got so dark that street lights started coming on,” he said.

“It was scary,” he said. The clouds were pure black and bobbed like an upside-down wave. “It was really amazing to watch.”

Then when it started to hail.

The first pieces were the size of a quarter but eventually they ended up being about the size of golf balls. Some fused together on their way down. Rick said he saw one fused chunk of ice that was about the size of a baseball.

“It was hail we’d never seen before,” said younger brother Russ, who was inside his fourth-grade classroom listening to his teacher read a book.

Outside, Rick noticed some of the clouds were spinning like “little baby tornadoes” but they would “vaporize” after a bit. “This thing was a real freak of nature,” he said.

The hail stopped and everything was quiet and went completely still. The air felt electrically charged and smelled like the ocean, he said.

Just then he looked up and saw one rotating cloud. Smaller parts of other clouds were being sucked into the larger cloud, he said.

“I was actually looking up into the funnel,” he said.

At that point teacher Tom Kennedy arrived. When Kennedy went to open the door a gust of wind ripped it out of his hand. He rushed students toward the other building.

Rick ran into his classroom and hid under the desk. When he looked outside he saw a metal backstop bend and come out of the ground.

Russ was under his desk inside the school. He said he couldn’t breathe.

“It was like driving down the freeway at 100 mph, sticking your head out the window and trying to breathe,” he said.

After a few seconds it was all over. The walls were gone and the ceiling was scattered around the school, Russ said.

Outside, Kennedy started taking a group of 30 or 40 kids, including Rick, across a lettuce farm towards buildings near Andresen Road.

The school was demolished. Cars in the parking lot were upside down, twisted and a few had beams through them.

Rick said he could smell broken wood, insulation and other things he never smelled again in his life.

“It was just incredible,” he said.

As he walked through ankle-deep mud towards Andresen Road, Rick noticed younger kids bleeding from their heads, while others had arms twisted in weird ways and many were crying.

Then he remembered his mom was working at a bowling alley watching kids for other moms who bowled in leagues.

He told his teacher he had to go, and started running.

On the way he ran into a downed power line and a horse walking loose on Andresen Road.

When he got to the bowling alley he saw his mom’s car in the parking lot. The entire bowling alley was “completely flattened,” he said. “It looked worse than if a bomb went off.”

He looked for his mom, but didn’t find her and went to a nearby grocery store where his dad eventually found him.

He spent a few hours at a neighbor’s home while his dad went back out to find Sharon and two other sons.

About two hours later his dad’s truck pulled up in front of the home. Russ didn’t look up. His dad looked at him and put his head down.

“I knew this was bad,” Rick said.

That’s when he found out his mom didn’t make it.

“For a 10-year-old at that point, life was pretty much over,” Russ said.

The family wasn’t sure where 5-year-old brother Randy was. He turned up a bit later and was in foster care. He had an abrasion on his back but he was alive. He now works in the produce section of the Hazel Dell Fred Meyer, Rick said.

Then it was the three boys and their dad.

Russ recently returned to the former site of his elementary school to talk with reporters from a local TV station. He said it was unsettling being there and it brought back a lot of memories.

“Forty years is a long time but it still has an effect on you when you go through what happened,” he said. “This wasn’t just a little windstorm. This wasn’t an event that affected a few people. It completely destroyed a school. It completely destroyed a shopping area.”

He said not everybody remembers that the tornado happened. He and his brother don’t want anyone to forget because their mother was killed, Russ said.

Rick says his mom was 30 years old when she died. She loved camping and was very active in the boys’ Little League.

It was hard playing the next season, Rick said.

“I could still hear her voice,” he said on Wednesday. “You could always hear that one voice saying ‘Nice hit Rick.’”