05 April 2017

Forty-five Years Ago Today


A
 violent thunderstorm transformed into a tornado, crossed the Columbia River, and hit Vancouver without prior warning at 12:51 pm on 5 April 1972. Six people died and many were injured. The south wall of the Sunrise Bowling Lanes collapsed, killing one young woman instantly, but the north side retained integrity long enough to allow around forty other people to escape. Debris smashed into a house across the street, pinning a man there for hours, and crushed a car in the Waremont discount store parking lot (72nd and Fourth Plain), killing another young woman and her two children. Still another young woman and her child were killed when the concrete wall of the store collapsed; some twenty other people were injured in the store but survived. The storm destroyed Peter S. Ogden school completely, but, even though it was in session, nobody was killed. Teachers and students from Fort Vancouver High School raced over to the elementary school to rescue the victims; in some cases (to my knowledge) students helped find and rescue their younger brothers and sisters.
Across the Columbia River at KOIN my father read on the teletype that a violent windstorm had gone down Fourth Plain destroying everything in its path, or at least that was his impression of the report. With visions of our house in ruins, all of us homeless, me picking disconsolately through the rubble looking for my iguana, he frantically tried to call home—but for some reason the lines weren’t working.
In point of fact I slept through the storm. I woke up briefly to hear wind rattling my window and what sounded like hail battering the roof, but it was only a partial awakening. I could hear sirens in the distance and I vaguely wondered if there were some kind of emergency in progress, but it was my sleep-time, and my body was adamant that I strictly observe it come hell and/or high water.
I woke up a couple of hours later, and learned of the progress of the disaster on the radio. I heard that the roof had collapsed at Peter S. Ogden school, “killing and injuring god only knows how many people” and I started pulling on outer wear to cope with the rain that was pouring down, intending to go down to help. Before I could leave my brother returned from his trip out; he reported that the police had the area cordoned off and were turning back would-be rescuers. We turned on the television to see what we could learn—the kid show “Ramblin’ Rod” was in progress. “Sure was windy out today,” he observed breezily.
Somewhere in here my father was finally able to get through on the telephone. We informed him that everything was all right here, though by this time he was probably better informed on the larger picture than we were. The storm had not traveled along Fourth Plain, but had merely crossed it a couple of miles from where we lived; our damage was minimal to nonexistent. And there were other calls to be fielded from anxious friends and relatives who had heard the news but were not clear on our local geography. 
There was some controversy at the time over whether the storm was in fact a tornado; some witnesses described it as one but the National Weather Service declared it to be a violent thunderstorm (as did the Oregonian). The handful of people I knew who had seen the storm said that there was no sign of the characteristic funnel of a twister, but other witnesses on television and in the newspapers were equally certain that they had seen it. When I had occasion to look the event up two or three years later the National Weather Service was still describing it merely as a violent storm. I don’t know what happened over the years to make them change their mind, but the National Weather Service now (2017) describes it as an F3 tornado. Either way, it took its toll of lives and property in its brief existence.

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