Friday, May 4, 2007. Then Greensburg City Administrator Steve Hewitt returned from a utilities conference in Wichita and met his wife and one-year-old son with his in-laws in Pratt. With reports of bad weather in Greensburg, he felt it important to get home. He heard there was a tornado south of Greensburg and made contact with the city power plant at around 8 or 8:30 p.m.
Kim McMurry, English and forensics teacher at Greensburg High School as it was then known, was with a group of around 25 students and a few adult sponsors at the state forensics tournament in Salina. The students had been given a score of 1 on the play they performed and they were looking forward to competing the next day. They had celebrated their triumph by going to a movie, but coming back, there was a feeling of uneasiness when they called their parents and heard about the bad weather around Greensburg.
Gene and Janet West, McMurry’s parents, were babysitting her daughters - McKelvie, then 7, and Ellery, then 4 – on their farm southeast of Greensburg. The Wests’ son, Cory, was also there with his wife and children. With the weather getting nastier, they took shelter in the basement and listened to the radio. Janet West “was doing her best not to scare my babies,” McMurry said.
Gene’s 90-year-old mother, Ruth West, who lived in the middle of Greensburg and did not have a basement, had, at his urging, taken shelter at her grandson, Jason West’s house. She was walking downstairs to Jason’s basement when something hit.
It was at that moment, 9:45 p.m., when Kim’s students, talking to their parents on cell phones, heard other line go dead.
Darin Headrick, then superintendent of Greensburg schools, recalled it was a “typical Friday.” He had watched his oldest son, Slade, compete that day in a track meet in Bucklin. There were storms in the area as he headed back to Greensburg and he made calls to make sure school vehicles were under cover in case it hailed.
He and his wife, Kathy Headrick, were looking at a house they were thinking of buying on South Main Street. It was right next to the home of Greensburg High School Principal Randy Fulton and his wife, Dee. The Headricks were visiting the Fultons while the weather worsened.
“The power went out,” Darin said. “The women and kids were in the basement. Randy and I decided we better go downstairs. You could just feel the air pressure changing. We knew we needed to get to a safer place.”
They took shelter in a basement in the bedroom.
“From the time we shut the door to the house being gone was probably 30 seconds,” Darin said.
Steve recalled going back up from his basement, looking up and seeing nothing but sky.
Darin sad it was “strange walking into town. That brought home the reality that everything was gone, not just the houses on the south side of town.”
There was just darkness, debris, downed power poles, trees uprooted and vehicles that had been thrown.
Near the Fulton’s house, Darin helped one of the neighbor’s, Dennis McKinney, then a state legislator, dig out a woman and her baby who were trapped inside their house. They had heard screams of “Help save my baby.”
“We got the baby out,” Darin said. “The mother was a little bruised up, but okay.”
The Wests’ house southeast of town, like the McMurry house on the northwest of town, were spared destruction by the tornado. Although the McMurry house was without electricity.
Gene and Cory got in Gene’s pickup and went driving out to observe the damage.
“There was a flash of lightning,” Gene said. “We saw a second tornado was on the ground so we decided we’d sit there until we saw where that tornado was going.”
When it was safe, they drove to Greensburg.
“When we got to town, it was hard to tell where we where because there were no streets,“ Gene said. “There were just houses and things scattered all over and it was dark.”
Kim and her students stayed up all night, watching news reports of the tornado. At around 4 a.m., four or five senior boys and an adult male sponsor drove back to Greensburg to help in the relief effort. Before leaving Salina the next morning, Kim and her remaining students would see the boys interviewed on CNN in front of the demolished high school.
Saturday morning, Kim drove her students to Pratt Community College where they were to be picked up by their parents, whom they had made contact with. People had quickly been evacuated from Greensburg that night, taking shelter with family members in surrounding towns or staying in shelters set up at Haviland High School and Barclay College, which is where Gene found his mother and nephew.
Janeve West, Gene’s daughter living in Iowa, heard about the tornado the next morning, then drove to the nearest airport in Chicago and bought a ticket home. She met Kim in Pratt, then went to their parents’ house.
Gene remembers the emergency crews that drove in from Pratt, Comanche, Ford, Edwards County and probably farther away. In the days and weeks following the tornado, help would arrive from every county in Kansas.
“The emergency people brought 200 body bags,” Gene said.
It turned out 13 people perished in the Greensburg tornado.
“I’m still amazed there weren’t more people killed,” Gene said.
Darin said, “The fact that the storm came early enough that people were not in bed and late enough that they were at home was a blessing. Had it happened earlier in the day or later, the casualty rate would’ve been higher.”
In the next couple of days, the National Guard and FEMA would arrive in Greensburg, and the city would be closed off to the general public for a few days until it was cleaned up enough to be safe. Gene, then a Kiowa County commissioner, would have daily meetings with the other commissioners. Many of the city’s residents who had been separated would see each other again at the first of a series of tent meetings.
The long work ahead that would go into re-building the town began that May 4, 2007 night.
Steve Hewitt dropped his son off at the KDOT (Kansas Department of Transportation office) on the east side of town. Every city employee joined him in bringing relief to residents.
“They had all lost their homes and they were out there helping,” said Steve, now CEO of Kansas Turnpike Authority. “Everybody in Greensburg became homeless yet the attitude was ‘we’re going to help rebuild.’”