Tornado Disaster Finds Topeka F. D. Ready
Off-duty shift recalled, reserve engines manned as other apparatus is assigned to rescue work
The crew at Fire Station No. 8, in southwestern Topeka, watched a black boiling cloud approaching the city’s most famous landmark, Burnett’s Mound. There had long been a legend, in this capital city, that the corpses of Indians, buried on the Mound, would ward off any violence of nature. The firemen soon buried this legend!
Topeka’s tornado warning was sounded at 7:02 p.m. last June 8. The men of Engine 8 had already returned to their station after taking an invalid to her basement. They had no shelter in the station so they watched the cloud come in to the south, saw debris in the air, and called fire headquarters to report that the funnel was tearing up their district.
This four-block-wide storm cut a diagonal path about 8 miles long through Topeka. It took 17 lives, injured over 500 and caused over $100 million in property damage. The United States Weather Bureau said it was the most destructive tornado on record. It was a night to remember.
The funnel moved toward downtown Topeka. It ripped luxury apartment buildings and raked a beautiful university campus. Topeka Fire Department Headquarters, a block north of the State Capitol, soon burst with activity. As the firemen there saw a large chunk ripped from the Capitol dome, there was a brief scurry to the basement. Dispatcher Charles Short took cover behind the metal stall surrounding the lavatory in the second floor communications room.
Board reflects disaster
Short emerged to find his switchboard ringing wildly. The local ambulance company wanted to know if the fire department could provide any ambulances; citizens wanted to report broken gas lines and downed power lines; the police were calling with information. Short later found he could not dial out but could receive incoming calls. His alarm paging system was out of service at three fire stations. Station No. 6, in the hard-hit Oakland area, could be reached only by radio.
Battalion Chief Herbert Brownell, Jr., on duty at headquarters, immediately ordered Engine 8, Truck 10, Aerial 7, and a district chief sent into the Burnett’s Mound area, where casualties and heavy damage were reported. These units began a house-tohouse search for victims. Brownell called for stretchers and extra mattresses brought from the headquarters attic and several station wagons stripped for use as ambulances. The engine and aerial trucks at headquarters were temporarily left with only captains and drivers as all other firemen were assigned to the station wagons.
Assistant Chief Russell Poteete had gone from his home to the Burnett’s Mound area. Nearly cut off by the developing traffic jam of sight-seers, the assistant chief radioed, from his private car, routing instructions for the incoming companies. He ordered a recall of the off-duty B shift. Poteete was able to make his way to nearby Station No. 8 where his aide was standing by with the chiefs official car.
Poteete was acting chief as Merril Lyttle, chief of department, and James Carriger, communications chief, were in Dallas, Tex., attending the National Fire Department Management School. They saw a report of the Topeka twister on a late night television newscast and spent all night driving back home.
Chief Poteete reported to the city’s unique Emergency Operating Center in the subbasement of the Shawnee County Courthouse and placed himself at the disposal of Mayor Charles Wright, Jr. Kansas Governor William H. Avery and other top officials soon appeared at the EOC to coordinate emergency measures. Poteete, using an intercom system between fire headquarters and the EOC, kept tabs on fire department operations until ordered by Mayor Wright to secure firemen from search and rescue duties. By that time, military forces had taken over.
Gas lines ruptured
Battalion Chief Brownell and his aide, their station wagon now equipped with a Stokes stretcher, responded to a first aid call in devastated East Topeka. Brownell found a nightmare of ruptured gas lines everywhere and radioed for a general shutdown of gas service in the area. He asked many bleeding East Topekans if they needed to go to a hospital. Some told him, “The others need help worse than we do.” Many were simply too dazed to answer. Debris and downed power lines kept his car from getting closer than two blocks to one victim, so volunteers helped carry the injured person in the stretcher over fences and hot wires to the waiting car. Brownell reported one emergency run was made to a hospital with both tires flat on the right side!
Firemen quickly found that normal emergencies had to be ignored in favor of the more seriously injured and a fire department ambulance would often be flagged down, before reaching its destination, to check other casualties.
Flashing red lights and sirens were completely ignored by hordes of spectators swarming into the darkening areas. But victims were emerging from the wreckage to direct traffic.
The fire department, like all other emergency services, was plagued with flat tires. A local tire firm opened its doors to help repair fire truck tires and a nearby filling station assisted with station wagon tires. Fire Department mechanics later reported some 25 tires had to be repaired during the emergency.
As off-duty men reported to their stations, reserve engines were placed in service at Stations No. 2 and No. 3. At 8:30 p.m., dispatchers reported only four engines and one battalion chief left in service. All truck companies, eight engines, two battalion chiefs, and six station wagons were then committed on search and rescue assignments. Engine 6, without power at its station, was involved in the Oakland area operations far into the night. Some firemen from the A shift, who were on vacation, reported for work. The off-duty platoon was released at 3 p.m. the next day.
Chief Lyttle’s car and his aide, used as an ambulance during the first night, were later assigned to the mayor. It quickly became a familiar sight in the coming days as Mayor Wright visited the damaged areas. The mayor later said this service made him a “believer” in drivers for fire chiefs! The aide carried a fire department walkie-talkie and the mayor carried a walkie-talkie on a civil defense band, so he had instant communications wherever he went.
The fire dispatcher had reported difficulty in reaching the Gas Service Co. dispatcher to report broken lines, so a fire department walkie-talkie was delivered to the gas company dispatcher.
Dawn broke, June 9th, on a “real disaster” (as Mayor Wright was to call it following an early morning helicopter survey). The fire department responsibilities shifted. The job of issuing passes for admittance to the devastated areas was given to Topeka’s 10 fire stations. Officials felt that because of the firemen’s knowledge of the streets, the fire fighters would be best qualified to judge if a pass applicant had a legitimate reason to be in the patrolled areas. Inspectors were assigned districts to cruise and watch for unsafe burning and to call fire trucks to extinguish such hazards.
Following one of the nightly strategy meetings in the EOC, disaster officials decided to place a temporary dump in a large park in the central part of Topeka. Firemen were assigned to burn this dump when it was filled. Two 1250-gpm pumpers and a pickup truck with a monitor nozzle were assigned to the job. Crews were rotated every six hours as the operation continued for several days. Some 8,000 feet of hose had to be laid as the only substantial mains were two blocks away. Firemen controlled the sparks with water fog but didn’t attempt to extinguish the huge pile of rubble until neighbors began complaining about the smoke problem. Fire officials estimated a 75 percent consumption of the debris by file but recommended against such burning in any future disaster planning.
Firemen also victims
Firemen, themselves, did not escape the fury of this Kansas twister. Nearly a dozen firemen had complete or heavy damage to their homes. Women of the fire fighters auxiliary acted quickly to provide for displaced fire families.
Fire department activities, substantial as they were, went virtually unnoticed by the local news media. Only a couple of “letters to the editor” hinted at the fire service contribution during the disaster. One, from the ambulance service, thanked firemen for their first aid performance. Another, from a Washington State family passing through town at the time of the storm, detailed how firemen had taken them in, given them coffee and allowed them to watch television until two nuns helped them reunite at a hospital with members of the family from whom they had become separated.
Although firemen made an estimated 30 ambulance runs in six hours, there were, by some miracle, no fires during the critical period. There were two false alarms!
Chief Lyttle later told the City Commission he was proud of his firemen. He noted that fire fighters are trained for emergencies and they responded to this, the greatest emergency in the history of the Kansas capital, as expected.