Tales from a Twister

Survivors recount experiences 40 years after deadly tornado struck Vancouver

By Tom Vogt, Columbian science, military & history reporter

Published:

 
photo

1972 Tornado Anniversary

On the Web

Former Peter S. Ogden students share memories.

Follow Steve Pierce’s weather observations and commentary on the storm

If you have a memory of the tornado of 1972, please send a brief account to

metrodesk@columbian.com.

1972 tornado victims

Luila Clevidence, 25, died at the Waremart store, along with …n Denise Clevidence, her 5-year-old daughter, and Mark Alan Clevidence, her week-old son.

Jeanne Adams, 22, died at the Waremart along with Brian Keith Adams, her 2-year-old son.

Sharon Lucille Graser, 30, died at Sunrise Lanes; she was posthumously awarded the Citizen Service Medal by the Clark County Sheriff’s Office for leading children out of a day care center at the bowling center.

Buildings knocked into mounds of rubble.

Rescuers tossing aside debris and hoisting chunks of a collapsed roof.

Teachers helping their shocked students deal with disaster.

Medical personnel assisting the injured.

We see those images every year from tornado-devastated towns in the Midwest. But 40 years ago, those scenes described the aftermath of a Vancouver disaster.

Six people died in the ruins of two collapsed buildings when a tornado hit Vancouver on April 5, 1972. Meteorologists say it was the deadliest tornado to strike west of the Rocky Mountains.

The teachers and students had just escaped from Vancouver’s Peter S. Ogden Elementary, and many of the people who ran to help them were teenagers from nearby Fort Vancouver High School.

Joan Steensen, who was shopping for groceries, and Ogden fourth-grader Virginia Hiller-Allen were among the injured who were pulled from the ruined buildings.

Family members who feared the worst included Marcie Ramberg. The junior high student was afraid that her mother -- kindergarten teacher Connie Oppel -- had died when the tornado tore through Ogden.

Now Ramberg is principal of the current Peter S. Ogden Elementary, and her mother still is part of the school community. Oppel is a volunteer at Ogden and gets together every Tuesday with her lunch buddy.

Both women still vividly remember the day Peter S. Ogden was destroyed.

Oppel said she grew up in Minnesota, and knew a tornado when she saw one brewing.

“I learned in tornado drills to go to the southwest corner of the basement because the tornado will take the roof off and drop it in the northeast corner,” Oppel said. So, she had her kindergartners curl up on the floor in the southwest corner of the classroom.

Her room withstood the storm, but when Oppel opened the door and looked out, “The building was gone,” she said. “I shut the door.”

Meanwhile, her daughter was among the students at Lewis Junior High who knew something was very wrong.

“We heard Peter S. Ogden had collapsed. A lot of students had little brothers and sisters there. My mother was there,” Ramberg said in her office at Peter S. Ogden, built about a mile east of its predecessor. “That’s how rumors start. It got around and snowballed. The word was that all the Peter S. Ogden kids were killed.”

‘Kids whirling past’

Nobody died when the school collapsed, but it was a close call, said Don Cannard, who was Ogden’s principal.

“I was in a part of the building where several hallways came together. The storm came whipping and I remember kids whirling past like leaves,” Cannard said. “They’d been blown out of the gym.”

The students were swept down the hall by a tornado that had emerged near Hayden Island, on the Oregon side of the Columbia River. According to the National Weather Service, the tornado hit Vancouver with winds ranging from 158 mph to 206 mph.

The twister hopscotched north, damaging several buildings in McLoughlin Heights before hitting Ogden Elementary, just east of Fort Vancouver High School, at 12:51 p.m. More than 90 students were injured.

Shopping horror

Less than a mile away from Ogden, the storm turned deadly when it hit Sunrise Lanes bowling center at Fourth Plain Boulevard and Andresen Road, killing Sharon Graser.

Just across the street, Steensen was shopping at Waremart with her 1-year-old son, Gil, when she was injured.

“Everybody in the store went to the front -- which was all windows -- to look. I remember seeing things flying by, and the top of the roof started peeling back,” the Vancouver woman said.

“I don’t remember anything after that.”

Steensen said she and her son wound up on the floor, next to a couple of checkout stands that protected them from more serious -- and possibly fatal -- injuries.

“Gil had blond hair, and pieces of something like tar were embedded in his head,” Steensen said. “I had a big hole in my back with pieces of wood and gravel and glass. An Achilles tendon was cut through and my foot was hanging.

“Two people dug us out and took us to the hospital” in their car before the first ambulances even arrived at the devastated Waremart store, Steensen said.

Steensen said she was the first tornado casualty taken to St. Joseph Community Hospital (now PeaceHealth Southwest Medical Center).

“I was in the hospital for a week,” she said.

But five people were killed when the store’s walls caved in and the roof collapsed.

Ogden Elementary would have been the scene of an even greater tragedy if the storm had hit a few minutes later, Cannard said.

“More than 600 kids would have been in the gym for a spelling bee,” he said.

The school gym was built of hollow masonry, with no steel rebar or any other reinforcement, Cannard said. Fifth-grade teacher Kathy Cusack was setting up the event in the gym, and saw how little resistance the walls offered to the winds, Cannard said.

“She told me, ‘Don, you wouldn’t believe it. It’s like the place was built out of sugar cubes’” stacked on top of each other.

Cannard said when he went to where the gym used to be, “There was six to eight feet of debris. The ceiling and rafters all came down,” Cannard said. If the gym had been packed with students, “It could have been a much worse situation.”

Close call in school kitchen

That wasn’t the only close call. Cannard said the school cook was ready to talk about meal plans for the next school day with her kitchen staff, but two of them had work to finish.

The cook showed Cannard where she always conducted the daily meeting. Not only had the roof collapsed, but the tornado had driven a chunk of 2-by-4 right through a 12-inch-thick beam.

Cynthia Byerman-Watson said she was sitting in her third-grade classroom when she heard: “Pop, pop, pop!” It was hail pelting the windows.

“It sounded like golf balls being thrown at the windows,” she said.

When the kids ran to the window, she said, their teacher yelled at them to get back.

“I had no sooner turned to run the opposite direction, when all hell broke loose,” Byerman-Watson wrote in an email that she also put on Facebook. “I was knocked to the ground and I instinctively brought my arms up to cover my head. I remember the sounds of bricks falling, glass breaking and the screams of my classmates. I was hit on the head by falling bricks and basically blacked out.”

When she opened her eyes, the third-grader saw heaps of rubble and dazed classmates. Then she realized that other classmates were under the rubble, crying for help.

Rescuers saw her hair

Several students from Fort Vancouver rushed over to help rescue the trapped children. One of the kids under the rubble in a fourth-grade classroom was Virginia “Ginger” Hiller-Allen.

“The last thing I remember before losing consciousness is that the entire roof lifted off the portion of building where my classroom was located,” Hiller-Allen said. “When the roof slammed down, I was in the hallway right outside the classroom door and the walls caved in on top of me.

“I have been told that I was found because I had long blond hair and when the students from Fort Vancouver came over to help rescue kids, they saw my hair coming through the bricks and started digging to get me out.

“I have never known exactly who the people were who dug me out,” Hiller-Allen said. “I have always wanted to have the chance to thank them face to face.”

Hiller-Allen said she was hospitalized for several weeks, and eventually had to relearn how to walk.

Fort Vancouver High School served as an assembly point for the Ogden teachers and their students.

Trudy Hascall, the Ogden school secretary, said she grabbed the “family book” that had information on each student and contact information for their families.

“Finally we got everybody together at Fort Vancouver High School. Their power was out, so our kids had to sit in the dark in the gym,” Cannard said. “They had been traumatized. It was pretty bad. It was hard to tell if they were in shock or not; the ambulance people said they were.”

By then, “Parents were streaming to the school, in cars and on foot, hysterically looking for their children,” Hascall wrote in a history of the Vancouver school district.

“Many students had been sent to hospitals before we had a chance to get their names; but by word of mouth, we were able to locate some of them,” Hascall wrote. “Many parents, upon not finding their children at Fort, called the hospitals in an effort to locate them.”

Lingering memories

The Ogden student body was split up among three other elementary schools for the rest of the school year -- Walnut Grove, Truman and King. Cannard and Hascall relocated their office to Walnut Grove, where echoes of the disaster occasionally popped up that spring.

“There were two or three girls -- when it was a windy day, they came looking for me,” Hascall said a few days ago. She was sitting next to her son, Loren, who had been a senior at Fort Vancouver that day. But Loren Hascall, who went on to become a music teacher at Lewis Junior High, had his own tornado echoes when those Ogden students got older.

“I taught some of them at Lewis,” Loren Hascall said.

And how did the topic come up?

“Counselors said some of them were still having trauma on stormy days,” he said. “They gave us a heads-up.’

It wasn’t just the kids who flinched at reminders of the tornado.

“It was several years before I didn’t react to sirens, or flashing ambulance or fire department lights, or hail storms,” Cannard, the former principal, said.

Oppel, the former kindergarten teacher, said her flashbacks were a result of making sure everyone in her classroom was accounted for.

“I’d wake up in the middle of the night, counting kids,” Oppel said.

Trudy Hascall said that she was so busy right after the tornado that she didn’t have an opportunity to reflect on the disaster.

“It didn’t hit me until a couple of days later,” she said, and that’s because the school’s lost-and-found box was at her house.

“A dad and his little boy came to my house to see if I had his mitt,” she said.

The little boy’s baseball mitt wasn’t in the box.

“Then it hit me, what happened to their world,” Hascall said, referring to all the children in the school. “After they left, I sat down and bawled.”

Tom Vogt: 360-735-4558; http://www.twitter.com/col_history; tom.vogt@columbian.com.