In the News

Abilene Recorder-Chronicle
Kathy Hageman

Anyone who has lived long enough experiences something called “flashbulb memories.” It’s a memory that is so highly detailed and vivid it remains with the individual for a lifetime, basically creating a “snapshot” in the mind.

Many people who lived through the Sept. 11 World Trade Center terrorist attack can still remember what they were doing when they heard the news. The same is true when John F. Kennedy was assassinated or when Pearl Harbor was bombed.

For many in this area, the 2008 Chapman tornado is one such “flashbulb memory.”

While it’s especially true for the Chapman residents who were directly or indirectly impacted, it also was true for many others.

Back in 2008 Chapman was a major coverage area for the Reflector-Chronicle. It was an assigned “beat” where a reporter attended every Chapman City Council meeting and someone attended every festival or other major event.

I had spent a number of years serving as the Chapman reporter and many of the people I dealt with regularly not only were work contacts, but also had become friends. So I was thinking about them when the tornado hit.

But by the time June 2008 rolled around, I had recently moved to a different job at the Reflector and my friend and colleague Carla Strand was covering Chapman when the tornado hit. In fact, she was attending a Chapman City Council meeting that night, which adjourned not too long before the storm came through.

Misses Abilene

The tornado, which later was determined to be an EF3, actually started in Salina and moved toward Solomon, Abilene and Enterprise before its direct hit on Chapman. It struck Manhattan, doing damage at K-State and other areas, before moving on to the town of Soldier.

In my “flashbulb memory” I remember being in the basement of my Abilene home with my husband and son, listening to my police scanner and radio reports while tornado sirens blared in Abilene. It missed us here, but Chapman wasn’t so lucky.

I remember hearing those first calls come across the scanner after the tornado struck and I started taking notes:

• Heavy damage reported west of Marshall Street; structural collapse equipment needed

• Mutual aid request sent out, staging area established

• Abilene and Herington firefighters report to their respective stations to respond; Geary County, other Kansas cities and counties also sending units

• Memorial Hospital in Abilene on standby to receive mass casualties

• Paul Froelich, Dickinson County Fire District No. 1 fire chief, takes control as incident commander

• Kansas Gas asked to shut off gas to the city

• Search and rescue crews needed to search Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, Seventh, Eighth and Ninth Streets

• Chapman will be closed to incoming traffic except for emergency vehicles

• Emergency responders, vehicles, equipment arriving from across Kansas and American Red Cross arrives on scene. By 12:35 a.m. comment is made on scanner that Chapman is “pretty well saturated with emergency crews”

• Shelter established at Sterl Hall in Abilene

• Casualty report comes in and a chaplain is dispatched.

Other scanner traffic involved search and rescue teams being assigned to grids to conduct house checks, front-end loaders out moving debris from the streets, and on it went into the night.

Next morning

One of the sad but true things about the news business is “bad news” always gets more attention than the good. So early on Thursday, June 12, 2008, Chapman was inundated with reporters from all over the state, nation, (and a day or two later, some from outside the U.S) all wanting to get in and see the damage. We were in the same boat. We couldn’t get in because the city had been closed to all but people who could prove they lived in Chapman.

Dickinson County Administrator Brad Homman who at that time was the county’s director of administration, served as spokesman for the city of Chapman for the simple reason that the police chief’s, city clerk’s, mayor’s and most council members’ homes had been destroyed or heavily damaged. They had their own problems to worry about and emergency city business to handle so Homman dealt with the media horde.

I remember an intense phone interview with him that morning while he gave me the basic information regarding what had transpired. This was back when the newspaper still was printed in Abilene and we didn’t go to press until 1:00 p.m.

Even though no media had yet been allowed in town, the Reflector had some photos in the June 12 issue, courtesy of some folks with Chapman ties.

Even before that paper made it off the press, Carla and I headed over to Chapman and parked outside the Kansas Auto Racing Museum where the media was told to gather. Carla’s little white car was a little out of place wedged in around the huge satellite trucks touting CNN, CBS news, and all the TV stations from Kansas and Kansas City, Mo.

Governor Kathleen Sebelius arrived by helicopter and told the reporters there were two casualties and I remember Homman telling her there was only one: 21-year-old Crystal Bishop who tragically lost her life while heading to find shelter.

In those early hours, the rumor mill said that Leon Larouche also had died which was untrue. Larouche lost his arm when his truck rolled as he was leaving the district gym tornado shelter to pick up a person and bring that individual to the shelter. He was seriously injured, but survived. He has since passed on.

Sen. Jerry Moran, First District Representative, was on hand as were folks from FEMA and agencies I can no longer recall.

Town tour

Homman told the media mob that “pool reporters” would be selected who would then be driven through town, escorted by county representatives. The “pool” reporters then took photos or video that was distributed to other members of their pool.

Immediately, the big media outlets began deciding amongst themselves who would go in and Carla and I figured we were out of luck. But then Homman motioned to us and said, “Carla, Kathy, come on!”

We hopped on a golf cart and away we went. Visiting with Homman years later, he said that’s one thing he tells other government agencies when he conducts emergency response training: “Always take care of your local reporters. They are the people who are there day in and day out.”

I know we always appreciated it.

Driving through town, seeing and photographing the destruction, I still can remember feeling stunned, overwhelmed, and a little sick. It didn’t help that the humidity was through the roof.

The Chapman tornado was the first time I had seen blocks and blocks of devastation, but it wasn’t my first rodeo (to use a cliché). I actually had covered a tornado before on April 26, 1991, when a twister roared through McConnell Air Force Base in Wichita and destroyed the Golden Spur mobile home park in Andover. I was working at the Winfield Courier and that tornado went through Cowley County, damaging and destroying homes and property on its way to Wichita.

But the damage in my county was in the rural area and while it was just as devastating to those affected it wasn’t all in one place.

Chapman was a stunner.

Ever since I was a little kid, I have been both fascinated and fearful of tornadoes. The first time I heard the word “tornado” was when Topeka was targeted on June 8, 1966. I was six years old and my uncle was living there. Until they heard from him, my parents were worried and so was I.

Today, many people consider tornadoes to be a “spectator event,” but there’s nothing good about them when they cause death and destruction.

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