NORTHERN DICKINSON COUNTY — Tom and Janet Whitehair saw the twister in the distance, maybe a half-mile away, barrelling down on their ranch home Wednesday night in fury of dark dust and clouds.
They knew it wouldn’t change direction, so the couple bolted down the stairs and under the stairwell to brace for the tornado’s assault. Within a minute it was over — the tornado ripped the single story home off it’s foundation, throwing debris across the prairie.
In the commotion an air duct fell on Tom, cutting his arm. It was the only injury either suffered. As they emerged from the stairwell, the lone part of the house spared, Tom had one thought:
“We’re damn lucky to be alive,” he said Thursday morning as more than 30 family, friends and volunteers worked around him, clearing debris from their normally quiet homestead.
Standing near what used to be the front steps of the home in mud-covered cowboy boots, plaid shirt and cap, Tom had few other words to describe what happened to him just over 12 hours before. The white bandaged wrapped around most of his right arm was becoming dirty.
“I didn’t really feel any suction,” Janet said. “Just the sound of things banging around.”
A few hundred yards to the north, parts of the roof and siding were missing from an older farm house the family owns. The tornado’s force reduced a large barn to rubble. Debris stretch to the south and east as far as the eye could see.
The Whitehair’s ranch was one of eight homes in Dickinson County the tornado, which some described as a half-mile wide, destroyed. As many as 20 other homes were also damaged, Dickinson County authorities said.
Mauled trees, ripped up railroad tracks and downed power lines also dotted the 26-mile swath of devastation the twister left. Despite the destruction, all known residents were accounted for with only minor injuries.
The National Weather Service in Topeka on Thursday afternoon classified the tornado as an EF4 with peak wind of up to 180 mph.
Within eyesight of the Whitehairs, about a mile across the green prairie to the southeast, Virgil Toombs surveyed his home.
Sunlight shined through cracks in the ceiling and dirt and grass stained walls, and broken glass littered the floor.
The twister blew the roof off the second floor of the brown brick home on Jeep Road. A corner room that belonged to his 11-year-old daughter lacked walls and ceiling, but her pink bedspread was spared. In the next room, the kitchen trash can and bag lay separated on the floor. How they got up the stairs and through a door, Toombs didn’t know.
Across the hall the ceiling had fallen on the Toombses’ bed, but no one was home during the storm. He and his wife, Shane, were at church in Junction City. They followed the storm’s path back home. To the south from Interstate 70, the Toombses said they could see the twister nearing Chapman.
“My wife kept saying ‘I can’t believe we’re doing this,’ ” he said.
They found two border collies, in kennels by the front door, unharmed. Goats scurried around a pin in the backyard, just a few hundred feet from the house, also unharmed.
Toombs, a combat veteran who served in Iraq, Bosnia and Kuwait, retired from the U.S. Army to raise livestock in the country. Standing in his backyard in muddy work boots, he compared the damage at his and neighbors’ homes to a war zone, saying they were blessed to be alive.
“I still got a house standing. You got whole towns and villages, cities that are ravaged,” he said, recalling images of war with quiver in his voice. “At least there are no dead bodies.”
As Toombs scanned the yard, neighbor Roland Kuntz approached, bracing Toombs with a hug. From his house about two miles north on Jeep Road, Kuntz said the night before he could see the twister moving slowly between his farm and his neighbor’s.
“You could see the sucker coming,” he said.
Kuntz took some photos and videos of the storm on his phone as it drew closer before turning and yelling at the neighbor he was with.
“We’re getting out of here and we’re getting out of here right now,” he said he told his neighbor before the pair rushed for shelter.
Across Dickinson County the twister left scars. Uprooted trees, torn-up crops and deep, long cuts in the soil were common sights along dirt roads, county blacktops and Interstate 70. The tornado’s destruction began northwest of Abilene just after 7 p.m. and continued for about 90 minutes as it tore east past the towns of Solomon and Abilene. It spared Chapman, a town of just over 1,300, moving just south of the city limits.
In Ottawa County, where the twister began, two homes were also damaged or destroyed.
“I mean, some of those homes out there are just obliterated or gone and to have that kind of sustained damage, you’d have to have 100 mph winds,” Dickinson County administrator Brad Homman said.
An unknown number of residents had minor injuries, but by 3 p.m. no one had reported major injuries. Some ranchers reported missing livestock, horses and pets, Homman said. More than 100 homes were without power, but it was unclear Thursday afternoon how much had been restored.