Thursday, April 21, 2016

Hero Of The Storm: A Roofer Remembers The 1966 Topeka Tornado

Editor's Note: The Topeka Capital-Journal has refused to publish this article about Jarrett Vincent's memories of the 1966 Topeka Tornado. I believe the author has a credible story, worthy of retelling. By publishing this article, we are giving readers a chance to review this story, and perhaps some witnesses will come forward to verify, amplify or correct the record. I'm especially interested in feedback on damage to the Capitol building. Feel free to leave a comment below. -MRH

By Charles Baylor

Author’s note on method:  This submission about my friend, Jarrett Vincent, was written in response to a solicitation by the Topeka Capital-Journal for “stories” and “experiences” from the ’66 tornado.  While the writer has not embellished the facts as related by Mr. Vincent, he also has done little to research or fact-check them for accuracy.  He knows Mr. Vincent as an honorable gentleman of quick mind and sound discretion, but it is quite possible that events that took place 50 years ago may over time change slightly in the memory of a 77-year old man.  The quotations of the various persons, as well as the facts set forth in this submission, have been checked with Mr. Vincent for factual accuracy—using Mr. Vincent’s memory as the principal standard.  For the record, Mr. Vincent objected to being referred to as a “hero.”  My identification of him as such is in no way to suggest that there were not others equally deserving of the designation.

            The evening of June 8, 1966 Jarrett Vincent, 27, was doing office work for Vincent Roofing, the company his father, Jack Vincent, had founded after the war.  All the employees had gone home for the day and only Jarrett, his wife, and his father were at the company headquarters in the old Branner Street School (now Midway Wholesale) at 3rd and Branner.  The skies were dark and threatening, but Jarrett didn’t think much of it and, anyway, he had work to do.  He was on the phone with Russell DeYoung, an executive at Goodyear Tire & Rubber in Akron, Ohio trying to get him to use Vincent Roofing for the many roofing and siding projects going on at its plant in Topeka.  Even when the sirens sounded Jarrett was not greatly disturbed and he continued complaining to Mr. DeYoung about the shenanigans one of Vincent’s competitors was using to gain the favor of Goodyear’s local purchasing agent.  Suddenly his wife came into his office.  Brooke wrote features for Stauffer Publishing and she had just called her employer.  A monster F-5 tornado over a half-mile wide and packing wind speeds upwards of 300 miles per hour had just crossed Burnett’s Mound and was headed directly at them.

            After hastily bidding Mr. DeYoung goodbye, he hung up the phone and the three family members ran to the basement where a boys’ bathroom, that probably hadn’t been used in 30 years, appeared to offer the greatest protection.  It was in the southwest corner of the basement (i.e., in the direction from which the storm was coming) and was under forty tons of building materials that Jarrett had had unloaded on the first floor dock earlier in the day.  Following her father-in-law’s instructions, Brooke leaned herself against the wall over a little boys’ urinal and Jarrett lay over her.  Finally, Jack Vincent lay over his son.  “That way hopefully at least Brooke will survive,” the elder Vincent remarked drily.  They braced for the worst.  What followed “was probably the most horrifying few minutes of my life,” Jarrett says. 

            The first thing they heard, aside from the sirens, was a whirring sound.  Jarrett thought, rather wishfully, that maybe the old gas heaters had kicked on as it had grown rather chilly.  But it was the storm.  Then there was a roar which grew louder and louder until there was mayhem and the sounds of destruction and utter chaos all around them.  Suddenly it stopped.  Where there had been darkness, blinding light streamed in through the garden-level windows (that have since been boarded up).  It was as if the heavens themselves had opened up.  Jarrett, thinking the storm had passed, made a motion to get up.  His father told him to lie still.  They were directly under the eye of the storm.  In a few moments the darkness returned with another round of banging and shaking and clashing the like of which Jarrett had never before that day ever experienced or even imagined.  “I remember thinking, ‘If I survive, what is it going to look like when I go outside?’”  He would soon find out. 

            For several blocks in every direction every house and building was severely damaged, a great many beyond recognition or repair.  Whole city blocks, where previously one and two-story shot-gun houses had stood cheek by jowl, lay completely flattened. The grocery store that had been cater-corner from Vincent Roofing now stood in the middle of the intersection resembling more a pile of bricks.  The rows of 120-foot high catalpa trees which lined the south and west sides of Vincent Roofing’s property were all uprooted.  The company’s trucks which had been in the parking lot south of the building, now lay piled three deep against the steel-mesh fence that fronted the east edge of the property.  None, needless to say, though they all still bore the company slogan “Vincent Roofing, At Your Service,” would ever be used again.  Straws piercing telephone poles, whole houses forsaking their foundations and going airborne—the things one reads about in fairy tales or the Wizard of Oz—these things Jarrett Vincent witnessed, or at least the stark evidence of their recent occurrence. 

            A block or two to the west, which actually was the area around the roofing company building with the least property damage (since the building lay towards the northwestern edge of the storm’s direct path), a man had taken cover in his second floor bathtub and thrown a mattress over himself. His entire house was blown away by the tornado with the exception of the plumbing to which the tub was attached.  The man was unscathed but had to be rescued from his place of refuge by a crew from the fire department who arrived on foot, and without sirens, some hours later with a ladder.

            Jarrett’s younger brother Starks, who worked for Jarrett at the time, had been at a Jaycees meeting in the 900 block of South Kansas Avenue.  After the storm passed, he walked around in the rubble looking for survivors.  He entered what had been a pool hall and bowling alley at 1024 S. Kansas, nearly cater-corner from where the Jaycees meeting had been held.  The owner had taken cover under a pool table.  A part of a wall had fallen and split the pool table in two.  To Starks’ horror, the proprietor was severed in two as well. 

            Compared with the lunar landscape which surrounded it the Vincent Roofing building itself was remarkably well preserved—a testament to the way Topeka used to build its public schools (and perhaps still does).  None of the Vincents suffered so much as a scratch.  Nevertheless, half of the wall on the east side of the building had been blown out and its roof had been lifted up and dropped back down at a 15-degree angle of deviation from its previous setting.  Jarrett relates that from the south and west the building looked like a giant porcupine with sticks, blades of grass and other projectiles sticking out at right angles everywhere from the mortar in between the bricks which themselves apparently proved too hard to penetrate.  Navigating around the neighborhood even on foot (the only possible mode of travel) was treacherous.  The root wells of the catalpa trees, as well as of many other uprooted trees, could reach up to a grown man’s chest.  At first the smell of garbage and gas from broken gas lines was rather repellent and ominous.  In a few days the stench of rotting carcasses and human waste, even for a five-pack a day smoker like Jarrett, would be nearly nauseous.  Amazingly the company’s building still had running water, though the authorities were saying not to drink it.  Very few other buildings in the neighborhood, residential or commercial, were so fortunate.

            The first two or three days after the storm Jarrett organized teams of employees and other workers to cut fallen trees and clear the roads around the company’s main office.  The two cars he and his father owned, which had been parked in recessed areas near the building, still worked, but there was nowhere to drive them. On June 9th, Brooke went to work, as usual, walking the mile or so to the Capital-Journal whose building sustained only modest damage.  It would be three or four days before Jarrett would sleep at their home in the Chalet Apartments.  However, for the next month, even the next six months, sleep would be a very highly rationed commodity.  “We went from being the biggest roofing company in Topeka to being the biggest roofing company in the Midwest throughout the summer and fall of ’66.  We went from anywhere between ten and forty employees to 100 employees working around the clock.”  Jarrett says he was “so jacked” (with adrenaline) because of the storm that he would routinely put in 100-hour work weeks, taking a nap for an hour or two and continuing to work through the night.  But the work was not very profitable.  “To protect our standing in the community we felt we had to help people.  We couldn’t just stand by while people lost everything they had ever worked for because they didn’t have a roof.”  The most profitable projects for the company during this period were in Manhattan and at Kansas State University which suffered significant tornado damage as well.

            Just before dark one evening a couple weeks after the storm Jarrett went to the old IBM Building at 1301 SW Topeka Boulevard to prepare an estimate.  Jarrett went up to the top of the two-story building and discovered that the deck that goes over the trusses had been blown away by the storm along with the roof.  As he walked over the walls and trusses surveying the damage he watched in horror as the wind blew over his ladder.  In his haste he had not tied the ladder down.  There was no place to sit or lie down and night was descending fast.  He called for help but no one was around because of the approaching curfew.  Jarrett was a designated emergency worker and had a placard in his car indicating that he was allowed in restricted areas even after curfew.  However, only a few emergency vehicles plied the usually busy Topeka Boulevard.  No one responded to his cries for help.  He thought seriously about jumping, but a broken leg would be a serious setback and, besides, the hospitals were still overburdened with those injured by the storm.  Finally, after what seemed an eternity, but may have been only an hour or two, a policeman appeared.  He inquired, using rather coarse language and shining his flashlight on Jarrett, as to what he was doing on top of the building after curfew.  After the officer re-positioned the ladder Jarrett was immensely grateful in spite of the officer’s somewhat rough treatment of him.

            Jarrett’s most impressive storm-related project was at the Capitol.  A small two-door sedan had, as it were, grown wings and flown into the copper dome just below the portholes on the west side.  It sat lodged there—having completely pierced the metal dome—with its butt sticking out towards Harrison Street.  Jarrett supervised the crew which removed the car from its resting place.  This involved assembling enormous cranes, throwing tarps over the breach to minimize water damage, and, finally, patching the hole in the dome.  Jarrett remembers arguing with the architect for the State who thought that the best way of removing the car was first to cut it into pieces.  Believing that the use of blow torches would create a major fire hazard with all the wood inside the dome including support beams, Jarrett finally prevailed upon the architect to pull the car out whole with cranes and with the help of jacks inside the dome.

             The Vincent Roofing Company built many hundreds of roofs for houses and buildings in Topeka in the months after the storm, and, for hundreds more, it built temporary roofs.  Most of these were in the older parts of town, such as in College Hill and on the Washburn University campus, as well as in the hard-hit areas south of downtown and around the company’s headquarters—in Oakland and East Topeka.  “Dad had a soft spot for old ladies,” Jarrett says.  Apparently there were not a lot of nice old widows in those days in the newer parts of the city, such as around 29th and Gage, that were the first hit by the tornado.  When the snows came in December the frenetic pace of the work finally subsided.  In spring there still remained a fair amount of storm-related roofing to be done and throughout 1967 the company was substantially busier than it had been prior to the storm.  In 1968 Jarrett started a company in Los Angeles that mixed and installed industrial insulation.  Soon afterwards his brother Starks took his place as project manager and general factotum for their father.   In the early ‘70s, the company moved from 3rd and Branner to East 15th Street across from Cushinberry Park.  Soon afterwards Starks bought out their father’s share, and Jack Vincent retired spending much of his time at his home in Westboro reading literature and histories about the Old West.  Brooke and Jarrett separated not long after the storm and Brooke moved to Kansas City and wrote for the Kansas City Star.  Jack Vincent died in 1981.  In the early ‘80s Jarrett moved back to Topeka occasionally doing estimates and bids for the family company.  Vincent Roofing remained a player in the city’s construction industry into the new century.   Soon after Starks’ death in 1999 his heirs sold the company, but it continued doing business as Vincent Roofing until it was sold again in 2005. 

            Today the word hero is bandied about with great abandon.  However, its use seems appropriate when applied to a person who rises to the occasion when his friends, neighbors, and the community where he resides and grew up in are in great danger and peril.  Usually this happens in the context of a war.  On June 8, 1966 mother nature or God Almighty or the spirit of Chief Burnett, or perhaps all three in concert, unleashed a storm upon Topeka of such fury and magnitude that the destruction it wrought truly approximated that caused by a war.  As the project manager of the city’s largest roofing company Jarrett Vincent was unusually well positioned to help his fellow citizens devastated by the tornado.  And at significant personal sacrifice he rose to the occasion, did his duty, and helped his fellow Topekans in their hour of need.  To my mind he deserves the name of hero—hero of the storm.



EVIDENCE FOR CLAIMS IN HERO OF THE STORM

1.  Owner of pool hall/ bowling alley (Lisle Grauer) being severed in two, not simply crushed.  Jarrett says he had more than one conversation with his brother Starks about Starks’ seeing Mr. Grauer’s body in the minutes after the storm had passed, and that Starks specifically said that he was cut in two.  According to Starks, he says, the pool table, typical of the finer pool tables of the time, had a slate bed which was broken in two by falling debris from the wall and then sliced Mr. Grauer in two.  Moreover, there appears to have been some shading over of rough edges going on in the coverage of Mr. Grauer’s death which makes me wonder if the manner of his death wasn’t also glossed over.  The Play-Land Bowl, according to Jarrett, was known for gambling and perhaps other vices.  The photograph of Mr. Grauer in Mr. Menninger’s book (which incidentally acknowledges that beer was sold at Play-Land—Jarrett says a good deal more than just beer was sold) would seem to support the idea that Mr. Grauer was more than just the proprietor of a bowling alley. Jarrett acknowledges that he never set foot in the establishment, but says that Starks went there occasionally and that he heard many stories about it from acquaintances of his own, particularly down at the Topeka Country Club, as well as from Starks.

2.  Car lodged in Capitol dome.  Bonar Menninger writes in his book (p. 195) that the damage to the dome was caused by a two-car garage being flung against it by the tornado.  He cites no source for the story.  The pictures of the damage, and the hole in the dome (such as the one appearing on p. 40 of the TCJ “The Day the Sky Fell” published in the months after the storm), appear more consistent with a car being flung into it.  It is hard to imagine what in a garage (other than a car) could have caused the damage, in particular, the flat oval shape shown by the photos.  A caption to one photo of the Capitol showing the damage (published in a TCJ retrospective on storm, 03/21/1967) states, “Did a house do this?”  Quite aside from Jarrett’s extensive first-hand accounts of the car in the Capitol dome story, it seems much more likely that the front end of a car, where all the weight is located, was flung into the dome.  However, in the media accounts of the storm, I have found no direct reference to a car striking or lodging itself in the Capitol dome (I have made a significant though far from exhaustive investigation of the documentary record).  The closest I have found was in the Capital-Journal photo collection “The Day the Sky Fell” [p. 40] published in 1966 in the months after the storm where there is a photograph of a small sedan being lifted or lowered by a very large crane next to a picture of the damage to the capitol dome.  The caption does not connect the two, but Jarrett says the car appears to be the one that he removed from the Capitol dome and he is “almost positive” that the crane was one of the two that Vincent Roofing had assembled on the Capitol grounds. “There wouldn’t be any reason to have a crane that high other than to go to the top of the Capitol,” he says.  Jarrett says that the removal took place several weeks after the storm.  He says that there was a lot of talk in Topeka about the car at the time.  An acquaintance of mine, George “Grumpy” Finch, age 75, who lived through the storm, and has worked for time immemorial at Churchill’s tobacco shop in Gage Center, told me he remembers a car being lodged in the Capitol dome after the tornado.  According to an email (a copy of which is in my possession) sent to me by Brian Herder, a reference librarian at the Capitol, two persons at the Capitol tour desk whom he spoke to and described as “awfully knowledgeable on Capitol history, each stated that he or she thought “a car” or “part of a car” had struck the northwest dome of the Capitol. 

            If Jarrett’s story is accurate, I could only speculate as to the reasons for what would appear to be a rather glaring omission in the photographic and documentary history of the tornado.  In other words, how is it that there does not appear to be any reference to a fact that must have been known by thousands, perhaps tens of thousands of people? 

            First of all, there may not have been that many people who would have actually witnessed it.  According to Jarrett, the car was more inside the dome than outside of it (copper being a very pliant metal) and was located just above the lip forming the bottom of the copper dome.  Moreover, as shown by the photograph of the damage included in the insert “The Day the Sky Fell” there was significant damage above the area of impact, which was below the portholes.  Thus, many persons could have stopped to look at the damage and not seen or noticed the car because it was obscured by the lip at the bottom of the copper dome.  Furthermore, for most of the time prior to the car’s removal the breach in the dome (along with the car) was covered with tarps. 

            But it may be that certain authorities, worried about the city and state’s reputation, decided that a car piercing the Capitol dome and lodging itself there represented a black mark against this ultimate symbol of State authority and of government power in general, and that, if possible, it should be suppressed.  One could certainly sympathize with such an impulse to censor, since the prevention of chaos and the break-down of government authority is obviously a strong consideration when confronted with such a major disaster as that caused by the Topeka tornado.  

            Also I can’t help noticing that two main references to the damage in the State House dome—Menninger’s claim that it had been caused by a two-car garage and the TCJ 1966 insert’s juxtaposition of the photo of the dome damage with another photo of a small sedan being hoisted by a giant crane—do not exclude the possibility that the damage was caused by the front end of a car.  In fact, they almost seem to suggest it.  Mr. Menninger’s two-car garage could have had a car in it.  The juxtaposition of the photos in the TCJ insert in the months after the storm would be unlikely to suggest to any but the most critical of readers that any revisionism of history was afoot.  The next reference to the Capitol dome damage (that I have found) was an article in the TCJ tornado retrospective of 03/21/1967 where there is an article titled “Flying House May Have Hit Dome.”  In it a former Shawnee County District Court bailiff, J.W. Graham, claims that he say a flying house “circling near the dome.”  But Mr. Graham is very tentative about any claim that the flying house actually did the damage or even made contact with the dome, admitting the house had gone out of his view on the far side of the Capitol.  He is quoted, “But it couldn’t have been anything else that hit the dome,” and admitting that “he does not know if the flying house he saw caused this damage,”.

3.  Blinding light streaming in through garden-level windows in the middle of the storm.  I was unaware of this phenomenon of large tornados and hurricanes, and was initially skeptical.  It was confirmed, however, in Mr. Menninger’s book.  On p. 227, he writes that one witness described the world as “deathly silent” when the tornado was right on top of her, before again reverting to the sounds more commonly associated with tornados.  At another point in the book, which I can’t seem to find, a witness describes his experience of being in the eye of the tornado as like “a million lights turning on at once,” or something to that effect.

4. Lunar landscape around 3rd and Branner.  Aside from Jarrett’s descriptions of the damage I think this characterization is justified by a TCJ photo taken after the storm (which was part of the 03/21/1967 retrospective, and a copy of which I have in my possession) from 4th and Branner looking to the northeast.

1 comment:

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