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A severe tornado strikes Vancouver, Washington, killing six and injuring more than 300, on April 5, 1972.

HistoryLink.org Essay 8099 : Printer-Friendly Format

At about 12:51 p.m. on April 5, 1972, a severe (category F3) tornado strikes the eastern part of Vancouver, Washington. The tornado demolishes the Peter Skene Ogden Elementary School, then sweeps through the Sunrise Bowling Lanes and the Waremart Discount Store. Six people are killed and over 300 are injured. Property damage exceeds $5 million. 

Squall Lines Form

On Wednesday morning, April 5, 1972, cold air began moving inland from the Pacific Ocean and collided with warm air in Oregon’s Willamette Valley and the coastal mountains. A squall line formed between Eugene and Newport, Oregon, and moved north-northeast, gaining strength as it did so.  By noon, the squall line had reached Portland; shortly afterward forecasters issued a warning for southerly winds gusting up to 50 m.p.h., but no tornado was shown on any local radars and no tornado warning was issued. 

The storm continued to intensify as it moved north through Portland, and just before 12:50 p.m., observers on the ground just south of the Columbia River noted a sudden and dramatic increase in the winds. An unofficial wind measurement at 3417 NE Marine Drive recorded a south wind of 120 m.p.h. before the equipment was damaged. At about the same time, Portland International Airport, about a mile southeast, recorded an official wind gust of 63 m.p.h. 

Startled witnesses watched as the storm moved north across the Columbia River, sucking up water in its wake; a few reported “twisting winds” (The Oregonian, April 7, 1972, p. 34) but most simply described a black or brown wind cloud. The storm crossed onto the Washington shore at the old Vancouver shipyards (near today’s [2007] Marine Park) and continued moving north-northeast. 

Vancouver Is Hit

No one in Vancouver had any inkling of what was coming. The only warning came when the storm reached the McLoughlin Heights neighborhood, about a mile north of the river. There the storm blew down at least a half a mile of transmission lines and sent showers of blue sparks into the air, which were visible to people several miles away.  A few people saw the sparks and wind cloud and suspected a tornado might be approaching, but most did not know what it was; most observers said the storm did not have the funnel cloud that is typically part of a tornado. 

The storm passed over McLoughlin Heights, demolishing at least two homes and damaging 25 others, then moved toward the Peter Skene Ogden Elementary School, which in 1972 was located at 2212 NE 65th Avenue. At the school, the noon break was just ending. Many students had come in from the playground to escape the rain and golf-ball-sized hail that had suddenly begun falling. Some stood near their classroom windows, watching the storm. 

Ogden Elementary School

Next to the Ogden Elementary School at Fort Vancouver High School, 16-year-old Paul Pearce was sneaking a smoke on a small balcony near the gym, facing the elementary school, when he saw the swirling cloud of dust approaching. He described what came next:          

"I noticed this large swirling cloud moving across the field. Huge timbers just floated lazily around in it.  Then it sort of swung a wide arc around some houses and drifted into the school. When it hit the school, the roof sorta lifted over, twisted, turned over a few times,  then disintegrated over the playground [north of the building].  I saw the walls start falling, then everything was obscured by dust" (The             Oregonian,  April 6, 1972, p. D). 

At the elementary school, none of the 541 students or 21 teachers had any idea what was happening as the storm struck.  Sixth-grade teacher James Kennedy, 28, described his experience:          

"The kids were coming in from the noon hour . . .  . This hail storm hit, showering  stones the size of golf balls. Then the wind exploded.  We herded the kids to the west side of the building . . . to get them out of the flying debris. Then the wind changed and flying objects began coming right at us, so we moved the whole bunch of them around behind the building and up against a wall. Debris went over the top      of us, all around us,  but nothing seemed to touch us. The high wind lasted less than a minute” (The Oregonian, April 6, 1972, p. C). 

Once the storm had passed, students from the high school raced to the now-demolished elementary school and helped dig the students out of the wreckage and otherwise help as they could. Although at least 70 students from the Ogden school were injured, none was killed by the tornado. This good fortune may have been in part because the tornado ripped the roof off the building and carried it north onto the school’s playground before it disintegrated, instead of causing it to simply collapse in on the students.   

Bowling Alley and Discount Store 

Those a few blocks northeast of the school were not as fortunate. The storm next struck the Sunrise Bowling Alley, collapsing the south wall first, killing a 31-year-old woman. Although the southern portion of the roof collapsed at about the same time, an unnamed witness reported that the northern portion of the roof stayed intact long enough to permit patrons to run out the front door of the bowling alley to safety. 

Flying timbers and debris sailed across the street from the bowling alley into the Waremart Discount Store parking lot, killing a woman and her two young children who were sitting in their parked car in the lot. The storm then struck the 48,000-square-foot store, collapsing a front wall and killing two people inside the store. Thomas Fuller, 25, was shopping in the store and told what happened:

"The lights went out. That was the only warning. Then, all hell broke loose. The  roof began to peel off and stuff began to fall all around. I screamed for everyone to  run to the rear of the building. But, the 20 or 30 shoppers in the store all ran for the front door. That’s when the front wall blew down, trapping a half-dozen people underneath.  Only three of us were able to walk out under our own power.  There was no time for screaming or panic. The wind gust lasted only about one-and-a-half to two minutes” (The Oregonian, April 6, 1972, p.1).

The tornado continued on its north-northeast track as far as Brush Prairie, a total of nine miles from where it had come onshore in Vancouver from the Columbia River.  But the majority of the damage and injuries occurred along a three-mile-long, quarter-mile-wide path between the Columbia River and the Waremart Discount Store.  

Rescuers among Ruins

Twenty ambulances from Clark County and from Portland converged on the damaged areas, assisted by four Army National Guard and two Air Force Reserve helicopters.  The injured were taken to St. Joseph’s Hospital and Vancouver Memorial Hospital, while rescuers remained on the scene throughout the afternoon and into the evening, searching the ruins with their bare hands to insure no one remained trapped in the rubble. 

There was some initial confusion over whether or not it was a tornado that had struck, particularly since tornadoes are so rare in southwestern Washington.  Initial reports simply described the storm as a "freak wind" or "thunderstorm gone wild" (The Oregonian, April 6, 1972, p.1, C). But meteorologists quickly identified telltale signs from fallen tree branches and the debris path that established that a tornado had indeed struck.  It would eventually be classified as a category F3 tornado on the Fujita Scale, which is defined as a "severe tornado," with winds from 158-206 m.p.h. 

The Vancouver tornado has the dubious distinction of being the deadliest tornado recorded in the United States in 1972. Six people were killed and at least 304 were injured seriously enough to be taken to area hospitals for evaluation and treatment. Property damage exceeded $5 million.  Today, the tornado remains the deadliest in Washington state history. 

Sources:
Leverett Richards, “Three Children, Two Mothers Among Dead,” The Oregonian, April 6, 1972, p.1;  Leverett Richards, “Soldier Aids Injured Shoppers,” Ibid., April 6, 1972, p.1;  James Magmer, “Official Denies Early Rumors Of ‘Tornado,’ ” Ibid., April 6, 1972, p. C;  Web Ruble, “Disaster Plan Drill Smoothed Hospitals’ Care Of Victims,” Ibid., April 6, 1972, p. C;  “Youth Recalls School Roof ‘Disintegrated,’ ” Ibid., April 6, 1972, p. D;  David Falconer, “Swath Looked As Though Cut By Buzz Saw,” Ibid.,  April 6, 1972, p. 16;  Robert Landauer, “Insurance Adjusters Estimate Vancouver Loss At $2.5 to $3 Million,” Ibid., April 7, 1972, p. 23; Leverett Richards, “Tornado Fatal To Six Spawned Without Warning In Thunderstorm,” Ibid., April 7, 1972, p. 34;“Washington’s Top 10 Weather Events of 1900s,” National Weather Service Forecast Office, Portland, Oregon, website accessed February 11, 2007, (http://www.wrh.noaa.gov/pqr/paststorms/washington10.php);  “Some of the Area’s Tornadoes,” National Weather Service Forecast Office, Portland, Oregon, website accessed February 11, 2007, (http://www.wrh.noaa.gov/pqr/paststorms/tornado.php); Diane Gibson, “Our Readers Remember: The Tornado of April 5, 1972,” The Columbian, website accessed February 9, 2007, (http://www.columbian.com./history/Disasters/tornado.cfm);  “The Fujita Scale of Tornado Intensity,” Tornado Project Online website accessed February 9, 2007,  (http://www.tornadoproject.com/fscale/fscale.htm).


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