Thursday, September 27, 2007

Man hurt in Greensburg tornado dies

From the Daily Globe, Dodge City KS:

GREENSBURG (AP) A Liberal man who was hurt in the May 4 tornado that destroyed Greensburg has died of injuries he suffered that night, making him the 12th victim of the storm.

Max M. McColm, 77, died Wednesday at the Indian Meadows Health Care Center in Overland Park, his family said.

McColm was staying with his daughter, Beverly Volz, in Greensburg while recovering from shoulder surgery when the tornado hit. Volz, 52, died May 5 in Dodge City.

McColm’s grandson, Ross McColm, of Lakewood, Colo., said his grandfather suffered brain damage after he was hit in the head with a large piece of metal. He fell into a coma and was taken to a Wichita hospital. At the end of June, he was moved to the long-term acute care center in Overland Park. He regained partial consciousness in mid-July and was told his daughter had died, said his son, Matthew McColm, also of Lakewood, Colo.

One thing the story doesn't mention is Beverly's husband. The reason she and her father were injured was because he was fairly slow, and she and Norman were trying to get Max to safety. Max was staying with the Volz's. They weren't fast enough.

I met Norman when Greensburg was still "closed." I had to deliver a couple of fuel trailers my company makes. An evil oil company (rhymes with Phonoco/Cillips) bought them for Mr. Volz, who owns a fuel distributorship in Greensburg. They thought the trailers would be pretty handy in the sort of crisis the citizens were facing.

I took US54 into town. On the west side, about a mile or so out of town, is the US183 junction. The Kansas Highway Patrol was manning a traffic stop there. Anyone with business in town had to clear them. I informed them of my delivery, and they let me through when traffic cleared.

Yes, there was traffic. Every orange state dump truck in the area must have been there, hauling debris to the landfill north on 183. There were also trucks from the Wichita, KC and Topeka area there as well, all in a steady line running to and from the landfill back into town to a loader somewhere. Debris was strewn all over the north side of the road - the prevailing southern wind was blowing trash from the loads. No one was cleaning that up - yet. They were too busy.

Then, I was in town. What was left of it, rather. The big implement dealer had a few damaged machines lined up and flatbed haulers were loading some to haul off. Across the street was the temporary hospital - tent city. What really struck me was both places had temporary flagpoles up and flying Old Glory. These people - well, they amazed me. Flying Old Glory was very important to them. This act alone made me feel fairly inadequate - could I bear up so well?

The whole west side of town was just gone. There used to be a convenience store I stopped at - gone. The motel next door - gone. Even the traffic lights at the lone stop intersection were gone. As I went further east, I could recognize some businesses - the Dillon's store (grocery chain owned by Kroger), and a Kwik Shop - they had a semi-trailer there selling some groceries. The park was full of tents - that is where the residents were staying. I got to the bulk fuel business - the pumps were manned by police. That day, they were from Topeka. There were also KS Highway Patrol and Wichita City Police there that day as well.

Mr. Volz turned out to be an interesting man. His main topic of conversation was that his business had been taken over by "the feds." When they found his facilities were mostly undamaged, and powering up his pumps would insure a fuel supply - they shut him down. The pumps were guarded, and vehicles stopped by to fuel the entire time I was there. The police had a clipboard and kept track of it all. He couldn't even get his own gas for his pickup for several days. He told me he had lost his wife and one of his "hired men." He told me how he had lost his wife and his father in law was severely injured. We talked for a while - inconsequential things , mostly. He was in pretty good spirits, overall.

I asked him - "How do you do it?" He knew what I was talking about. He said he felt lucky. Lucky that the tornado came when it did. If it had come far later in the night into the morning, he would be burying even more of his friends and relatives. They would have been asleep when the warnings were issued. He felt fortunate in the larger scheme of things. I shook his hand, offering my meagre condolences.

I left, going back the way I came. I didn't feel like taking pictures. I was there on business. I wasn't there to rubberneck and be in the way. I had to dodge debris all over the highway - one of the pitfalls of the rescue efforts was the high rate of flats on vehicles. The devastation was surreal in a WWII sort of way - I almost expected to be seeing in black and white. The trees were stripped. A hay baler was deposited on the ruins of the second story floor of a building with two walls left, spilling it's contents onto the sidewalk. A couch with a coffee table sat at a corner - someone set them there so they could rest and watch. A semitrailer with a banner "Free Water and Food" sat on an empty lot surrounded by tables laden with supplies.

I blended in with the stream of dump trucks headed out of town and headed for home.

I was pretty shook up over the whole experience. There was no evidence of human physical injury or death, as in a war zone, but the whole tableau screamed "People died here." I was going to write about this a lot sooner, but I just couldn't. Hearing about Max finally jarred me into writing this.

I had to drive through there earlier this week. There are no traffic lights at the intersection. The stripped trees have a carpet of leaves on what is left of the large branches. The Kwik Shop is back in business. The implement dealer had a large shed up and is doing business. The tent hospital is still there. The trash along the highway has been removed. Life is returning to the western Kansas town, albeit slowly.

I've helped the Mennonites clean up after a tornado - at a single farm. I was already impressed with how much damage they can do. This was almost beyond comprehension. I hope to never see anything like it again.

1 comment:

Bob said...

Thanks for writing about this tragedy. I lived in Topeka in 1966 when a tornado came through about six p.m., wiping out everything in a swath a block or two wide and fifteen miles long; except it raised up long enough to spare most of the state capital building. It did take some of the gold out of the dome. It missed me by one block. Everybody in the neighborhood was in the only house that had a basement. My wife was nine and one-half months pregnant with our first child. It was an eery scene afterward.