The Devastating F5 Topeka Tornado of 1966

By Tom Rodriguez

On the morning of Wednesday, June 8, 1966, I had just finished working the graveyard shift at the DuPont Cellophane Plant in Tecumseh, Kansas.  It was raining and kind of cool as I drove home.  As usual, when I got home Mom made me breakfast and then I went to bed.  I woke up about one o’clock that afternoon and was watching television when I heard that there was a tornado watch for northeast Kansas.  I didn’t pay much attention to the warning because severe weather warnings were pretty common during the summer in that part of Kansas.  At about three o’clock, I received a telephone call from Carolyn, a girl I was dating at the time and we arranged a date for later that evening.

I left the house at about six fifteen and was driving west on Sixth Street.  I had stopped for the light at the intersection of Sixth and Branner Streets when it occurred to me that I had not visited my grandparents Rodriguez in over a week.  That was unusual for me because I visited both sets of grandparents at least once a week.  Surprisingly, on that particular day the Sixth and Branner Street intersection, which was almost always very busy, was completely clear of cars and I was able to make an illegal right turn from the center lane onto Branner Street headed north.  Had there been cars in any of the two lanes to my right, I would not have visited my grandparents that day.

When I arrived at their home, which was located at 1713 Atchison Street on the far east side of the Oakland community, I found my grandparents asleep on the sofa.  Normally, I would have awakened them but I decided to turn on the television instead.  After about five minutes, the young news anchor for WIBW-TV, Bill Kurtis, who later went on to national prominence as a Chicago news anchor and as the producer-host of American Justice for the Arts and Entertainment Network, came on and excitedly announced that a tornado had just touched down near Burnett’s Mound in the far southwest corner of Topeka.  Immediately afterwards, he said that the Huntington Arms apartments at 29th and Gage Streets had been hit and devastated, and then with a look of fear on his face, and in a loud voice, he told everyone watching, “For God’s sake take cover, take cover.”

When I heard Kurtis utter those words, I woke my grandparents and explained to them in Spanish what was happening.  I then went out to their backyard and looked to the southwest but all I saw was a cloudy grey-green sky.  I went back inside and Kurtis was announcing that the tornado was headed in a northeast direction and was still on the ground.  I then heard the distant wail of a tornado siren going off.

I began to get worried but I knew that Burnett’s Mound was many miles away on the other side of town.  Nevertheless, I went to the kitchen where the basement door was located and went downstairs to the basement and looked around.  It was a small basement, about ten by twelve feet with a dirt floor and two small windows located on the south wall.  I quickly went back upstairs and carried two chairs from the kitchen down to the basement.  

By the time I got back upstairs, Kurtis was announcing that the tornado had just hit Washburn University and had destroyed a lot of the campus buildings. It was then that I started to panic and immediately helped the grandparents down to the basement.  I remember that they were very obedient and quiet.  My grandmother sat on her chair holding a rosary and praying and my grandfather sat on his chair with his hands folded on his lap saying nothing.

I ran upstairs again and went outside and looked to the southwest toward the nearby Santa Fe Repair Shops.  That time, however, the sky was black and everything was very still.  I went back into the house and Bill Kurtis said that the tornado had hit the downtown area and that it was still on the ground heading northeast.  Upon hearing that news, I ran outside again and for the first time saw the shape of a huge, very wide, black tornado funnel directly on the other side of the Santa Fe Repair Shops. I panicked and quickly ran into the kitchen and down the stairs to the basement where I told my grandparents that the tornado was just across the Santa Fe yards and was coming right at us.  They didn’t say anything and I told them that we needed to get near the west wall.

As we sat on the dirt floor waiting for the tornado to hit us, many thoughts raced through my mind, about Alaska and the Great Earthquake of 1964, and how I had survived that only to maybe die in a tornado.  I envisioned myself flying through the air, still alive and being hit by flying debris.  I was also angry because of what was happening.  I kept saying to myself over and over, “how the hell could a tornado hit that many miles away and then travel all the way across town and hit my grandparents home?”  How could that be?  It was unbelievable!

My thoughts were broken by an indescribable sound that was louder and scarier than anything I had ever heard, before or since.  It was as if something unworldly was savagely tearing up trees and grinding, ripping, howling, and was coming closer and closer to us.  Then the tornado was upon us!  I heard the windows breaking and dust filled the small cellar as I held on to the grandparents and the three of us lay prone in a pile on the floor near the west wall.

When the tornado hit the house, everything shook, dust flew everywhere, and the noise was terrifying.  Then suddenly, almost unbelievably, the tornado moved past us and then farther away.  I could still hear some faint noises but I knew that the worst was over and that we had survived.  It had all happened so incredibly fast.  My grandfather was still on the ground and was muttering something unintelligible and my poor grandmother was lying next to him with her eyes closed and was praying in Spanish.  Outside it was eerily quiet.

I stood up, shook the dust from my clothes and then helped the grandparents to their feet.  I helped them brush off their clothes, righted the chairs, and told them to sit down while I went upstairs to check on the house.  When I reached the top of the stairs and opened the wooden cellar door, my grandfather called out to me in Spanish, “Como esta la casa, hijo?”  In English that meant, “How is the house, son?” I looked out and all I could see was total devastation.  It took me several seconds to realize that my grandparents home was gone.  That struck me in a big way because my grandparents lived in a large two-story house with seven rooms.  I looked across the street and saw the people who lived directly across from my grandparents sticking their heads up from their basement.  I then yelled downstairs to my grandfather and told him in Spanish, “Ya no tienes casa Grandpa!” which in English translated to, “You don’t have a house anymore Grandpa!”

I then went down the stairs and brought the grandparents up.  All around people were coming out of their basements like moles.  The destruction was hard to fathom, on either side of my grandparents house there was virtually nothing left standing, no trees, no fences, nothing, just the remnants of walls and rubble where houses once stood.  

Incredibly, on the ground floor of my grandparents home, which was then open to the sky, was left standing and unharmed, a statue of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the patron saint of the Mexican people.  My grandmother quickly made the sign of the cross and said that Our Lady of Guadalupe had sent me to save them from the tornado.  In later years, that story would get retold many times. 

As I surveyed the devastation around me, I noticed for the first time that my new 1966 Ford Galaxy, that I had only owned for three months, was crushed beneath a huge felled tree.  While that should have upset me more, it did not because my grandparents and I were alive, and because it was getting late and I had to figure out what I was going to do about the grandparents.  I quickly decided that I had to get to my parents house to get help from Dad and my brothers.

As I prepared to leave, I sat the grandparents on an old sofa on what used to be their front porch.  I can still vividly recall the sight of them sitting on that old sofa amid the total devastation with their hands folded on their laps.  That scene is forever etched in my mind and whenever I think of it, I know that it would have made one great photograph.

Since it was early in June, it was still light when I headed out for my parents home, which was at least a mile or more away.  I started east down the middle of the street and was quickly faced with fallen trees, overturned cars, debris everywhere, and downed power lines.  To this day, I don’t know if the power lines were live when I jumped over them?

On my way out, I saw people I knew inspecting the damage to their homes.  A few of them yelled out to me and I told them that I was going for help for my grandparents.  I ran to the end of Atchison Street and then over to Golden Street and south past the railroad tracks.  When I got over the tracks, I noticed that nothing on the south side had been touched and that I was out of the tornado ravaged zone.  I continued to run for a few blocks and then flagged down a car who took me as far as Sixth Street.

When I got to the bottom of the hill at Tenth and Republican Streets, I took off running up the long hill.  Near the top, I stopped and caught my breath, then ran the last block to my parents home at 1212 Republican Street.  Upon entering the house, I saw my parents, my brother Michael, my brother Richard, his wife Monica, and their two girls, Rochelle and Yvonne.  My brother Richard and his family lived up the street from Mom and Dad but because they did not have a basement, they always came over to my parents house whenever there was a tornado warning.

When I ran in and told them that the tornado had destroyed the grandparents house and that we needed to go help them, their immediate reaction was one of disbelief.  I was a practical joker in those days and for one minute they didn’t believe me.  When I saw their reaction, I became agitated and told them that my car had been crushed by a tree and that they could take a look and see that my car was not there.  I guess that worked because my brother Michael went to the front window and confirmed that my car was not there.  I repeated again that I was not joking and everyone gathered around me and started asking questions.

I felt relieved but I knew that we had to go back to help the grandparents.  I told them that we had to get moving before it got too dark and so my father and I left in his car and my two brothers followed in my brother Richard’s car.  We traveled as far north as we could on Golden Street then had to leave the cars and walk.  On the way in, we could hear the sound of chain saws and saw people everywhere starting to clean up.

When we got to my grandparents house, they were still sitting out there in the open porch, just as I had left them.  My father and brothers were left speechless by the devastation and just kept shaking their heads in disbelief.  After searching the area in the growing darkness, we left with only the statue of Our Lady of Guadalupe.  Everything else was gone.  I went over to my car and assessed the damage.  I knew that it would be days before that huge tree could be lifted off or cut away.  On an impulse, I took out my keys and went to open the trunk.  Surprisingly, it opened and I took out my golf clubs.  I still have visions of the six of us walking out of that carnage in the darkness in single file formation, with electric saws buzzing and men shouting and me bringing up the rear carrying my golf clubs.

The grandparents stayed at our home for a few days and then moved in with my Aunt Mary until they found temporary subsidized housing about a half mile from my parents home.  They lived there for over one year, until a new single-story house was built for them on the site of their old house.  After my grandmother Rodriguez died in 1977, the house was sold to my parents who lived there until they died.  After my father passed away in January of 1981, we sold the house to my older brother Richard and his wife for a fair price.

Not long after the tornado had hit Topeka, various sources reported that the tornado damage path was 22 miles long and one-quarter to one mile wide.  They said it moved from the southwest to the northeast at 30 to 35 miles per hour and that the winds blew between 261 to 318 miles per hour.

According to the experts, only 2 percent of all tornadoes pack such power.  An F5 tornado, which is what the Topeka tornado was, is the most violent storm on earth. In addition, the Topeka tornado was listed as the costliest tornado in United States history up to that time.  Even today, it still ranks among the top ten costliest tornadoes ever in the United States.  The tornado also took a high human toll, killing 17 individuals and injuring 550 people, many of them seriously.

As I write this is has been 54 years since the devastating F5 Topeka Tornado of 1966.  The tornado destroyed my grandparents home, destroyed my new car, and frightened us beyond anything we had ever experienced.  Looking back these many years, I still have many unanswered questions about that fateful day.  Why did I leave so early for my date?  Why was there no traffic on Sixth and Branner Streets, which was almost always busy, especially at about six o’clock?  Why did I decide to visit my grandparents on that day? Why did I turn on the television when I got to their home instead of waking up my grandparents?   Why did the statue of Our Lady of Guadalupe stay upright and unharmed when the rest of the two-story house was destroyed?  I don’t have answers to these questions.  Was it all ordained by some higher power? I wish I knew, and someday when I go to meet my maker, maybe I will find out. But for now, all I know is that for many years, up until they died, my grandparents believed that I was sent there by Our Lady of Guadalupe to save them. 

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