Newspaper article The Topeka Capital-Journal

Dickinson County Tornado from Wednesday Upgraded to EF4: 'We're Damn Lucky to Be Alive'

Newspaper article The Topeka Capital-Journal

Dickinson County Tornado from Wednesday Upgraded to EF4: 'We're Damn Lucky to Be Alive'

Article excerpt

NORTHERN DICKINSON COUNTY -- Tom and Janet Whitehair saw the twister in the distance, maybe a half-mile away, barrelling down on their ranch home Wednesday night in a fury of dark dust and clouds.

They knew it wouldn't change direction, so the couple bolted down the stairs and under the stairwell to brace for the tornado's assault. Within a minute it was over -- the tornado ripped the single story home off its foundation, throwing debris across the prairie.

In the commotion an air duct fell on Tom, cutting his arm. It was the only injury either suffered. As they emerged from the stairwell, the lone part of the house spared, Tom had one thought:

"We're damn lucky to be alive," he said Thursday morning as more than 30 family, friends and volunteers worked around him, clearing debris from their normally quiet homestead.

Standing in mud-covered cowboy boots, a plaid shirt and a cap near what used to be the front steps of the home, Tom had few other words to describe what happened to him just over 12 hours before. The white bandage wrapped around most of his right arm was becoming dirty.

"I didn't really feel any suction," Janet said. "Just the sound of things banging around."

A few hundred yards to the north, parts of the roof and siding were missing from an older farmhouse the family owns. The tornado's force reduced a large barn to rubble. Debris stretched to the south and east as far as the eye could see.

The Whitehair's ranch was one of eight homes in Dickinson County the tornado, which some described as half-mile wide, destroyed. As many as 20 other homes were also damaged, Dickinson County authorities said.

Mauled trees, ripped-up railroad tracks and downed power lines also dotted the 26-mile swath of devastation the twister left. Despite the destruction, all known residents were accounted for with only minor injuries.

The National Weather Service in Topeka on Thursday afternoon classified the tornado as an EF4 with peak wind of up to 180 mph.

Within eyesight of the Whitehairs, about a mile across the green prairie to the southeast, Virgil Toombs surveyed his home.

Sunlight shined through cracks in the ceiling and dirt and grass stained walls, and broken glass littered the floor.

The twister blew the roof off the second floor of the brown brick home on Jeep Road. A corner room that belonged to his 11-year-old daughter lacked walls and ceiling, but her pink bedspread was spared. In the next room, the kitchen trash can and bag lay separated on the floor. How they got up the stairs and through a door, Toombs didn't know.

Across the hall the ceiling had fallen on the Toombses' bed, but no one was home during the storm. He and his wife, Shane, were at church in Junction City. …

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