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Deadly 1972 tornado left its mark on Vancouver

Survivors, relatives of victims of historic tornado vividly recall events of 50 years ago

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Five people died when a violent tornado destroyed a Waremart grocery store in Vancouver on April 5, 1972.
Five people died when a violent tornado destroyed a Waremart grocery store in Vancouver on April 5, 1972. (The Columbian files) Photo Gallery

Fifty years after a tornado killed their mother, Rick and Russ Graser are keeping her memory close at hand.

Sharon Graser was one of six people who died on April 5, 1972, when a tornado demolished Peter S. Ogden Elementary School, a nearby bowling center and a Waremart grocery store.

The 30-year-old woman was working in the nursery at Sunrise Lanes when the tornado struck. She made more than a dozen trips to retrieve children from the ruins of the nursery, including her 5-year-old son, Randy.

She went back into a void to get the last child and handed the girl to a rescuer. That’s when the roof collapsed, Rick Graser said. “It happened so fast she didn’t know what hit her.”

Sharon Graser was posthumously awarded the Citizen Service Medal by the Clark County Sheriff’s Office for getting those children out of harm’s way.

“I never want her to be forgotten,” Rick Graser, 62, said. That’s why the retired fishing guide has a tattoo on his right forearm. The image includes a representation of the twister tearing the school apart.

Russ Graser, 60, brings a sensitivity based on his loss into his sixth-grade classroom.

“I’ve had many students who were traumatized by events,” said Russ Graser, in his 38th year as a junior-high/middle-school teacher. “Anyone whose parent has been taken from you, you can talk to me. I learned about it in real life.”

Luila Clevidence, 25, died at the nearby Waremart store along with Denise Clevidence, her 5-year-old daughter, and Mark Alan Clevidence, her week-old son. Jeanne Adams, 22, also died at the Waremart along with Brian Keith Adams, her 2-year-old son.

It was the deadliest tornado in Washington’s recorded weather history. About 300 people were injured, including 90 students at Peter S. Ogden Elementary School. That’s where Rick and Russ Graser were when the tornado devastated the school.

Rick was in the playground during lunch break when he saw the looming clouds roll in and flashes of lightning getting closer.

During more than 50 years as an outdoorsman, “I’ve never seen clouds any darker,” he said. As hail hammered the kids on the playground, the sixth-grader watched the wind toy with a nearby baseball backstop.

“It blew it flat, and those posts were set in five feet of concrete.” And then the backstop just sailed away, he said.

Blane Castrey was also on the playground when the barrage of hail started.

“It was golf ball-sized, and it hurt! I had welts on my leg,” said Castrey, a lifelong friend of Rick Graser.

When sixth-grade teacher Tom Kennedy opened the exterior door to their classroom, Castrey said, “It was pulled right off its hinges.

“We were untouched, but a lot of kids were hurt,” Castrey said.

“A kid had a piece of glass stuck in his forehead. A girl’s arm was bent at a weird angle,” said Rick Graser, a Moses Lake resident who has retirement property on the Cowlitz River.

Russ Graser was in his fourth-grade classroom when the tornado announced its arrival.

“I heard hail pounding on the roof. I went to the window and watched kids scatter,” Russ Graser said. “I heard the roof rattle, and instinctively I went under a table.” After another peek-and-duck, he popped up from under the table again.

“There was nothing there. You’re used to seeing four walls. Nothing was there,” Russ Graser said.

It wasn’t just bricks that were blown around. So were students, former Principal Don Cannard told The Columbian before his death in 2018.

“I was in a part of the building where several hallways came together. The storm came whipping in, and I remember kids whirling past like leaves,” Cannard said in 2012. “They’d been blown out of the gym.”

The school cook showed him another example of the wind’s power in the kitchen. The tornado had driven a chunk of 2-by-4 through a wooden beam that was 12 inches thick.

Tornado victims

Luila Clevidence, 25, died at the Waremart store, along with 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.

Things could have been worse, Cannard said. Where the gym once stood, “There was six to eight feet of debris. The ceiling and rafters all came down.” If the storm had hit a few minutes later, “more than 600 kids would have been in the gym for a spelling bee.”

Fortunately, help was close. Teenagers at nearby Fort Vancouver High School, just west of the elementary, ran to Ogden and attacked the rubble. They led the younger kids or carried the injured ones back to the Trapper gym, which became an assembly area.

“I made a couple of trips,” said Vern Vestal, who was a sophomore. “I think we had every kid over to our gym before the police and fire departments showed up.”

For some of the Fort students, the Ogden disaster was a family emergency. Patty Wannamaker Russo had a brother and a sister there. Both were safe, but her sister had a close call.

“Their teacher told them to stay at their desks, but she ran to the window to look at the hail. The roof fell in right where her desk was,” Russo, a 1973 Fort graduate, said a few days ago.

Tornado Toll

The tornado that killed six people in Vancouver was the deadliest in Northwest history; Washington led the nation in tornado deaths in 1972.

The tornado caused an estimated $6 million in property damage in Washington alone. That amounts to about $40 million in today’s dollars, according to an online inflation calculator.

The scale used at the time rated the storm as an F3 tornado, with winds up to 206 mph — strong enough to lift and  throw around heavy cars.

Starting as a squall that moved across Portland, the tornado first touched down on the south edge of the Columbia River. Its nine-mile path of destruction extended through the east side of Vancouver to the Brush Prairie area.

Two weeks after the tornado, the National Weather Service issued a report that detailed some of the damage: “A number of witnesses said that buildings seemed to explode. Examination of wreckage of (Peter S. Ogden Elementary) shows some strong evidence in this regard.”

SOURCE: National Weather Service

If the fourth-grader had been in her desk instead of at the window, “I’d have been dead,” she told Russo.

Vestal and Russo were among several former Fort students at a rescuers’ reunion in advance of Tuesday’s 50th anniversary. They recalled the events of that day with Steve Becker, who is working on an oral history project for the Clark County Historical Museum. In a transcript, Jeannie Wright described her afternoon in the high school’s health room.

“I remember this little girl in a dress. I could not tell what color the dress was because she was covered in blood, and she was crying; it was her birthday dress from her big brother, and it was ruined,” Wright, a 1973 Fort Vancouver graduate, told Becker. “I just kind of lost it when she said that.”

For many who were caught up in the disaster, echoes of the tornado continued to pack an emotional punch.

“It was several years before I didn’t react to sirens, or flashing ambulance or fire department lights, or hail storms,” Cannard, the former Peter S. Ogden principal, said in his 2012 interview.

The Graser brothers still haven’t left those reactions behind.

“I watch the clouds,” said Russ Graser, 60, a Felida resident. “When the weather gets nasty, I get edgy. I can’t settle down. I thought those moments would go away; they don’t.”

But the two brothers still treasure other memories linked to the mother they lost on that day. They can be summarized in two words: fragrance and fastball.

Before he became a fishing guide, Rick Graser was drafted by the Seattle Mariners and spent three seasons pitching in their minor league system.

“She was the inspiration for everything I did in baseball,” and it went beyond baking cupcakes for his Little League team. “My mom used to play catch with me.”

Until the day he literally became too hot to handle. Rick saw his dad Marvin drive up and wanted to show how hard he could throw. Sharon Graser’s glove was shoulder-high, but she had no chance of flagging down that throw.

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“The ball went right between her glove and her face,” he said, and that was the end of playing catch with mom.

The Mariners selected the Fort Vancouver Trapper in the ninth round of the 1978 draft, but control problems caught up with him in the minors. “I could throw 101 miles an hour, but I couldn’t keep it over the plate.”

Russ Fraser’s memories include the scent of his mother’s perfume.

“At the mall, I would find the perfume my mom would wear at the Nordstrom perfume counter and spray it on my finger,” he said. “Estée Lauder Youth-Dew. Every time I’d smell it, it would bring me comfort.”

It still does.

“I gave a bottle to my wife. It’s not her scent, but I open it occasionally,” Russ Graser said. “She understands.”