Pomona, KS Tornado Hits Dinner Theater Showboat, June 1978
POMONA TRAGEDY HISTORY FOR KANSAS.
Pomona, Kan. (AP) -- Only fate is to blame for the bizarre, tragic meeting of a mini-tornado and a dinner theater showboat that left 15 persons dead in the worst boating accident in Kansas history, according to officials.
It began when the Whippoorwill excursion boat pulled away from the dock at Lake Pomona under clear skies shortly before 7 p.m. Saturday.
At almost the same time, weathr forecasters in Kansas City, Mo., studying satellite photographs and radar, decided the severe thunderstorms were developing along a cold front moving across Kansas.
They issued a severe thunderstorm watch at 7 p.m., according to Warren Sunkel of the National Weather Service. in Topeka.
But the Whippoorwill, loaded with 47 passengers and 13 crew members, was already on its way.
The twister formed on the Dragoon Creek branch of the lake, according to the weather service, and entered the main channel where it created a "Poseidon Adventure" for those aboard.
Earlier reports indicated 59 persons were aboard, but the Kansas Highway Patrol revised the firure after a woman passenger called to say she was on the boat but had made her way safely to shore.
"By the time we noticed it coming, we had less than two minutes," said BRUCE ROGERS, owner of the boat. "I told the pilot to head for the south shore as quickly as possible. I went below and told the engineer to go full speed ahead."
He said he was just opening the life jacket compartment when the storm hit, capsizing the 65-foot-long boat.
LAWRENCE STADEL, owner of the nearby Lighthouse Bay Marina, saw the Whippoorwill go over about 100 yards from shore and rushed to the scene where he puled two from beneath the craft.
"Panic around water is bad. Water is never forgiving," he said. STADEL found two young men, both with their heads barely above water in air pockets just tight enough for them to breathe. He swam under the boat once for each of them and pulled them down and out from under the boat.
ROYAL ELDER, who heads up the boating division of the Kansas Forestry, Fish and Game Commission, said the boat, built by a Methodist minister and residents of the lake area in 1965, was obviously seaworthy.
"The old boat apparently was in good condition," ELDER said from his home in Pratt. "After all this has been said and one, this boat is in fairly good shape."
Only a canopy that covered the upper deck seemed to be damaged extensively after workers righted the vessel early Sunday.
"If it hadn't been in good condition it would have been one total wreckage," said ELDER.
He said the flat-bottomed design, which had a draft of only about five feet, was not at fault in the upset. "There have been flat-bottomed boats running up and down the Mississippi and Missouri River ... A lot of your boats are flat-bottomed."
The Whippoorwill had been inspected for fire extinguishers and life jackets only a week earlier, ELDER said, but boats built in Kansas before 1970 do not have to conform to design specifications.
ROGERS, through a spokesman, said he had studied meteorology for a year in the Air Force and had three years experience in navigation.
ROGERS told Osage County Chief Deputy JIM GARDNER that he surveyed the sky before he departed. "It didn't look that bad," he told the deputy.
A severe thunderstorm watch means there is a possibility of 3/4-inch hail and wind gusts up to 58 miles an hour, the weather service said.
"A lot of guys go fishing in that weather," GARDNER said.
"I don't think man builds anything that can withstand tornadoes," said STADEL, the marina owner. "I think it's quite unfair to imply that anyone did anything wrong."
But the experience made a deep impression on ROGERS. Twenty-four hours after the tragedy, he sat with his head in his hands on the steps of the temporary morgue where the bodies were taken.
Divers resumed operations today to recover the body of MELISSA WRIGHT, the 9-year-old daughter of SANDRA WRIGHT, about 40, of Topeka and grand-daughter of GRACE VOGEL, about 67, also of Topeka. Their bodies were recovered.
Until the Whippoorwill went down, a 1976 cabin cruiser accident that claimed the lives of five members of a family on Crawford County State Lake was Kansas' worst boating accident. It was far from the worst tornado. The Udall tornado on May 25, 1955, claimed 80 lives.
Other dead were:
JUDY PATTERSON, 25, Topeka, who was eight months pregnant.
DR. NORMAN SCHWARTZ, 48, a Prairie Village dentist.
TINA KRAMER, 17, a member of the summer stock company at the park's playhouse from Quenemo.
NORRIS E. WEISS, 47, Topeka
CAROLINE HURTWICH, no age available, Topeka.
MILDRED LILLY, 79, Topeka.
CHARLES GRIFFIN, 33, Topeka.
PAMELA NELSON, 28, Wichita.
DONALD HAWTHORNE, 35, Merced, Calif.
MURIEL FULLER, age unknown, Madison, Wis.
SARAH REED, age unknown, with FULLER both staff members at Emporia State University.
ZUBAIDAH ISA, age not available, address listed as the Indonesian Embassy in Washington, a teaching fellow at Emporia.
Atchison Daily Globe Kansas 1978-06-19
Researched and Transcribed by Stu Beitler. Thank you, Stu!