Excerpts from the special edition of the 60th anniversary of the El Dorado Tornado
Tuesday, June 10, 1958 was a hot, humid Kansas day. Many people still remember the activities they participated in that day and where they were that evening when two minutes changed everything.
Many residents began keeping a close watch on the sky about 4:30 p.m. when heavy clouds began building up to the north and west of town.
Shortly before 5:30 p.m. a squat, gray funnel formed northwest of El Dorado. It was a commonly-accepted belief that tornadoes track north or east, but this was not the case that day. By the time the “wrong-way” tornado touched down near Oil Hill and moved across the American Legion Golf Course, it devastated 40 square blocks of the modest residential area in the south part of town.
The passage of the twister was preceded by a few sprinkles of rain, then a deluge of rain accompanied by golf ball-size hail. High winds whipped trees and tore limbs, strewing the streets with debris. The city water plant recorded .98 of an inch, most of which fell before 6:30 p.m. After nightfall, the storm moved off to the East.
Luckily neither of the two local refineries reported any damage. The tornado cut across and destroyed all four Kansas Gas & Electric Company lines into El Dorado, leaving the city in darkness. Any tornado coming from the usual southwest direction might have hit one line, but not all four. The twister took down all four feeders.
Kansas Highway Patrol Trooper Bob Lemon was situated seven miles south of the city and when he spotted the funnel he drove to El Dorado as quickly as possible.
“I warned the El Dorado police by radio that the storm was coming. I don’t imagine I gave them a five-minute advance warning if I gave them that much,” he told the El Dorado Times.
From a vantage point on Highway 254 and the west edge of the American Legion Golf Course, the path of the tornado could be closely seen leading directly and past Skelly Elementary School.
A temporary morgue was set up at the 4-H Building. Eleven bodies were soon placed there and the other victims died in hospitals. El Dorado’s hospital Susan B. Allen Memorial was quickly filled to capacity. Due to the lack of lights, doctors sent the critical cases and those with bone fractures to Wichita hospitals.
Portable generators were sent from Wichita to El Dorado by the Boeing Company and McConnell Air Force Base. National Guard units delivered mobile search lights, which provided emergency lighting at the hospital.
Red Cross set up an office and arranged shelter for the homeless. A blood donation office was started in Wichita.
Only a month before, the hospital drafted an emergency plan, and when put into effect, it helped speed up the procedure of handling the overflow of injured.
Community begins digging out the next morning
The next day sight seers were asked to refrain from visiting the stricken area while clean up operations were being conducted.
Reclaiming and rebuilding Skelly Elementary School began at once. Twenty to 25 percent of the building above the ground was salvageable and Superintendent Max Bickford wanted the building ready in the fall. The school cost $250,000 to build four years prior. It would cost about as much to repair.
Along Towanda Avenue a dozen bulldozers and power shovels crunched through the remnants of 259 demolished homes. Hundreds of trucks hauled the debris away.
At dusk, two days later, they had leveled half a dozen of the 42 blocks ravaged by the twister. There were blocks left without a house worth saving. There were a dozen more with only one or two houses left standing.
Pyramids of splintered lumber and twisted metal piled up on the Skelly school yard as the bulldozers knocked down the wreckage of surrounding houses. The school yard also became the temporary junk yard for more than 85 vehicles.
At one point, more than 2,500 volunteers and crews were working in the area helping with clean up. About 750 National Guardsmen with heavy equipment were on the scene, too.
The clean-up process was done under a hot, beating sun with temperatures in the 90s.
A washing machine was set up in the front of a house on Terrace Drive and women of the neighborhood were washing clothing that had been gathered from the destroyed area.
The showers at the Forest Park swimming pool bathhouse were open to any of the people who lost homes or relief workers who wished to use them.
Many cats and dogs were homeless and a concern for the city, as well as residents searching for lost pets.
Unidentified and unconscious for three weeks
Isabelle Stephens is a special tornado survivor. She doesn’t remember being blown out of the car that she and her husband were traveling in traveling on the Kansas Turnpike outside of El Dorado on June 10, 1958. They had gotten married just two days earlier.
“We were from Pennsylvania and were headed to my aunt’s home in Winfield and had just stopped at a rest stop. I don’t remember getting back into the car to proceed and I don’t remember the tornado,” she explained.
Isabelle, 84, continues to share her survival story, and has visited El Dorado several times, including the 50th anniversary of the tornado in 2008.
She shared that she was blown out of the car through a wire fence with wind speeds of 140 miles per hour and baseball-size hail. It was reported that the only thing left on her body were her shoes, rings and watch.
The car was never found.
Isabelle was left in a temporary morgue for three days. She appeared to be deceased.
“The doctors came in to do a final check and said, “We have lost another one.” A nurse standing nearby said to wait because she wanted to try one more thing. She put a mirror under my nose and when steam appeared she said, ‘She is living.’”
Meanwhile, people were working to identify the young woman and her husband, who had been taken to a Wichita hospital, was also trying to locate his wife. He detailed the inscription in her wedding ring, “ASE IMS 6/7/53.”
Through his information and the efforts of others, Isabelle was identified. She remained unconscious for three weeks. She suffered a concussion and head injuries, cuts, broken shoulder, broken collar bone, and broken pelvis.
“My entire right side was broken. My husband had broken bones in his shoulder and was bruised,” she said.
El Dorado residents Dale and Edith Hummel were by her side constantly and communicated with her mother in Pennsylvania.
“The doctors told my mother that I would never walk again, but on Feb. 14, I walked out of the hospital on my own.”
The excitement wasn’t over for Isabelle and her husband, however. She was heavily sedated when they left in a small plane from the El Dorado airport on that day in February. Due to some mechanical failure, the plane was forced to land in a corn field. No one was injured and the next day she was back in Pennsylvania.
Isabelle spent 198 days in the hospital, 50 days in El Dorado and 148 days in the hospital in Pennsylvania.
During her last visit with her doctor, he advised that she could get back to work so she returned to her job as cashier at GMAC, where she worked for 33 1/2 years before retiring.
She was thrilled that people stood in line to speak to her when she visited the 50th anniversary of the tornado. She was able to meet the daughter of the Hummels and others who touched her life.
“It’s been wonderful traveling there. I placed flowers on the graves of Dr. Johnson and his wife, and Dr. Kassebaum and his wife. They were so good to me.”
She admits that she is alert to weather conditions and respects storm warnings.
“I’m a sky watcher now!”
In 2009 she presented her book “A Day That Almost Wasn’t” to the Kansas Oil Museum and Butler County History Center. She has also produced a video that will be available at the History Center in the near future.
“A special thanks to the History Center for hosting the book signing in 2009 and putting my name on the marquee,” she stated.
She still has her own home in Butler, Pa., enjoys making her Heavenly Angel Food cakes, mows her own lawn, and enjoys growing flowers and vegetable. She is grateful to be in good health and credits God’s hand in her many years.
“God is so good. He touched the doctors, and nurses - prayers were sent from far and near. Prayer is the key to Heaven.”
For a complete special anniversary section, pick up a copy of the Saturday, June 2, 2018 Times-Gazette.