EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first of a two-part feature commemorating the 2001 Hoisington tornado. Look for part two in the April 21 edition of the Great Bend Tribune.
HOISINGTON — Two decades ago in the mid to late afternoon hours of April 21, a supercell thunderstorm began to churn over portions of Rush and Barton counties. As the atmosphere became increasingly unstable, columns of cooled air began to sink earthward, striking the ground with strong downdrafts and horizontal winds while lightning and thunder coursed through the sky at an unnerving tempo.
Fueled by the fading sunlight, the tempest continued to evolve in might and intensity, giving birth to a rotating column of air that began to roll and twist violently out of control. At a little past 9 p.m., the atmospheric phantom hovered over northern central Barton County and at 15 minutes past the hour the unseen column of air pivoted downward. Like the wolfman, the funnel-shaped menace transformed into a maddening beast of an F4 tornado sinking its claws into southwest Hoisington.
According to reports from the National Weather Service, after hitting Hoisington the twister trekked northeast for approximately 2 miles. In a 5-mile swath, the whirlwind left one person dead and 28 others injured, including two critically. As law enforcement and emergency personnel sprang into action, the totality of the destruction became evident the next morning. Property damage included nearly 200 homes and 12 businesses destroyed, with 85 homes sustaining severe damage.
In remembrance of that fateful April evening, the Hoisington Historical Society will host a commemoration at 5:30 p.m. this Wednesday, April 21 at American Legion Post 286, 204 N. Main St. The come-and-go event will feature displays of newspaper articles, tornado books, photos and scrapbooks.
Teddy Williamson was 5 years old and lived on a farm just outside of Antlers, Oklahoma, when an F5 tornado blew through the town of 3,000, killing 67. Among the dead were Williamson’s best friend’s parents.
More than half a century later and 444 miles away to the northwest, Williamson witnessed another significant weather event as the tornado drama unfolded in Hoisington on the night of April 21, 2001. Williamson, who moved to Hoisington in 1965, served several years as the director of nursing at Clara Barton Hospital and was on staff in 2001.
She and her husband, former Hoisington Mayor Clayton Williamson, lost their home in the storm.
“Instead of having some of our nurses double up, I decided to go ahead and work the shift that night, which was on a Saturday,” said Williamson. “We had the two-way radios on and we were watching the weather and listening to the reports from the storm chasers.” Jim Turnbull, who was the hospital’s administrator at the time, began organizing an immediate relocation of patients as the weather became increasingly threatening. Just moments after the relocation was underway, Williamson said she heard what sounded like bowling balls crashing into the hospital’s roof.
“I knew people were always comparing hail to the size of ping pong balls, golf balls, tennis balls, baseballs,” said Williamson. “And I thought, ‘now we have bowling balls.’”
But what Williamson thought was bowling ball-sized hail on the rooftop turned out to be tornado-thrown debris. A few days after the storm, Turnbull examined the top of the building and was astounded to find 2x4 pieces of wood lodged into the roof’s surface. Williamson said it looked like a collection of spears had been thrown into the structure.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that anybody standing outside that night would have been killed because there was just so much matter flying through the air,” she said.
Williamson added that while the hospital did not have a safe room at that time, a central hallway was used to shelter patients and staff in place as the twister ripped through town.
“There were offices on both sides of the hallway but the hall itself had no windows and was the safest place we could use,” she said. “So we placed some of the patients there and the others we relocated to another room that was used for ICU which didn’t have windows either.” Williamson noted that the hospital housed 10 patients that night.
“Those included a young mother with her 10-day old baby,” said Williamson. “Six of those patients were acute care and the other four were resident.”
Silence on the airwaves
Detective Sgt. David Paden is a 29-year veteran of the Barton County Sheriff’s Office and was on patrol on the night of the tornado. Paden was driving north of K-4 and just west of U.S. 281. He was following a storm cell out of the county, from the back side, or so he thought.
“It went from zero rain, hail or fog, to rain, hail and fog so thick I couldn’t see but maybe 100 feet in front of my patrol car,” recalled Paden. “I had my (now) brother-in-law Rick Calvert with me that night on a ride-along. He’s a weather guru and I remember us commenting back and forth about the sudden change in the weather.”
As conditions worsened, Paden’s radio went dead.
“I vividly remember Rick saying to me, ‘something’s not right with this,’” said Paden. “A few minutes later we realized we weren’t hearing radio traffic like we’d been hearing and relaying conditions.” Finally the radio dispatch cracked the news that Hoisington was hit.
“I was just in awe,” Paden said. “Apparently another weather cell had built and come in from the south.”
Paden, who lives a few miles just south of Hoisington, said his whole world was turned upside down in an instant.
“So many things went through my mind at this point,” he said. “I knew my parents were at my house with my 7-year-old and 1-year-old sons.” Just before the storm struck, Paden contacted his wife, who was at work at the time, and notified her about the weather. “But being tied up watching the weather, listening to updates from dispatch, other radio traffic and obviously maintaining my driving, I didn’t know exactly where she was, how my parents and sons were, or what had happened to my house, if anything,” he said. “We were surrounded in weather and then all of a sudden we drove out of it and it was just rain. I was approaching U.S. 281 from the west, so we turned southbound and headed for Hoisington.”
With lights flashing and siren blaring, Paden approached Hoisington from the west side of town. “We saw trees knocked over, shingles all over the roadway and even complete roofs of houses lying in yards and on the highway that led through town.”
He explained how quickly, after entering the community, circumstances switched into high gear. “My immediate priorities changed from one thing to another,” Paden said.
“A training officer of mine, Deputy Warrant Peterson, told me once when I was early in my career, ‘Dave, you can’t do anybody any good if you don’t get there.’ So I had to calm myself, take a deep breath and handle one thing at a time.”
The chaos commenced for Paden upon his arrival to the scene.
“I saw people walking around injured, vehicles blocking the roadway because of trees, roofs and debris,” he said. “I had to talk to people and calm them down. They just had the biggest scare of their lives. People were asking for help because they were injured and at that point there just was no plan or way to get them the aid they needed.”
Minding the store
Randy Deutsch, owner of T&C Supermarket, has lived in Hoisington most of his life. On April 21, Deutsch and his family were en route to Hutchinson to watch their son participate in a basketball tournament.
“It was an all-day tournament so I asked my mother, Delores, if she wouldn’t mind managing the store that day,” Deutsch said. “We caught a break between games, so we were enjoying lunch at a restaurant which had a television for customers to watch.” Deutsch added that the day’s humidity was higher than normal for mid to late April. “It was just unusually muggy and didn’t feel right,” he recalled. “While we were eating, the news station kept coming over the air with severe weather advisories.”
Later in the day, Deutsch used his wife’s cellphone to contact his mother who was minding the store in his absence. “I asked her what the weather was like in Hoisington,” he said. “She said it was cloudy and very humid. This was about 8:30 in the evening.”
Aside from one customer in the store and the building custodian, Delores was the only person in the facility. “So I told her if there was nobody else in the store to close early since we regularly close at 9.”
Back at the tournament, some 45 minutes later, Deutsch’s wife, Debbie, received a call from her sister.
“She asked if we were all right,” Deutsch said. “She then told Debbie that a tornado just hit the town.”
After pulling his son from the game, Deutsch and family made the 77-mile trip back to Hoisington, “between 95 and 100 miles per hour,” he said. “Mom was probably in her 70s at the time and I couldn’t get a hold of her. That whole trip back was just horrible because we had little to no information to go on.”
As the family drew closer to town, a frazzled Deutsch managed to contact one of the local firefighters. “He told me things in town were not good,” Deutsch said. “I told him my mother was in the store and if anybody had driven by the building to see what had happened.” After a split second pause, the young man informed Deutsch there was nothing left of his business and no sign of Delores. “Because he was working as a first responder, he didn’t have a lot of time to go into details,” Deutsch said. “As we got closer to Hoisington, traffic was at a standstill on the south side.”
With the entire community’s power knocked out, Deutsch left the comfort of his vehicle and walked roughly a mile to his home in darkness. “It was just surreal, the limited vision, the sounds and smell that the tornado left behind,” he said. “We just kept walking in the dark until we reached our house which, other than having no electricity, was still there in one piece.”
From there, Deutsch encountered a friend who informed him that his daughter was safe after attending high school prom. “The next job was to find out about mom and the store,” he said. “By that time there was nobody in what was left of the building so we headed to her house, which was also destroyed.” Despite the destruction of her home, Delores was also found, standing bewildered but unharmed, in the rubble on that dark April night.