Pomona, KS Tornado Hits Dinner Theater Showboat, June 1978


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.
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


the whippoorwill

I was a kid in tpoeka when this happend. I seem to remember my little brother saying he lost his teacher on that boat. I to remember seeing it after the tornado. go here (1978 Whippoorwill tornado - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia) it telles who owns it now. it's not the whippoorwill any more.


I remember being there that night. I was almost 6 yrs old. We were camped in a trailer not far from where the boat was pulled to shore while they looked for survivors. We went into Vassar and hid in a church basement during the storm until it was deemed safe to go back. Several hours went by with choppers landing in the field across the road from the camper, and what seemed like hundreds of pieces of heavy equipment passing by headed down to the water to help with the recovery. The next morning we walked down to the waters edge and sat on the hill, staring at the bottom of the boat. After awhile we saw a diver come up, and then the parents said it was time to go. Only years later did I figure out why. The boat used to sit by the park's entrance for awhile, broken stack hangin to the side and all. I would like to see her again, as my memory of her has kept me from being around any bodies of water during foul weather since then.

34 years ago

It is hard to believe it has been 34 years ago since this happened. I was 6 years old at the time. I remember this night vividly even though I was young. Losing my sister, mother, and grandmother all at once was sureal. Many times I wonder why I survived, espcially since I couldn't swim. This event completely changed my life in a blink of an eye.

Whipporwill disaster

My mother, Carolyn Hartwick (misspelled above) and grandmother, Mildred Lilly, died in this accident. My aunt, Joanne Aker, who was also on the boat just passed away last Sunday (6/27/10). Her passing has been very difficult and has brought me back to this day. I hope that the three of them can now be together. I cannot even imagine how horrible this experience must have been for them. My aunt never let it bring her down or stop her from being an excellent parent to her children and to me as well since I lost my mother that day. May they all rest in peace.

I was there and saw the

I was there and saw the whole thing happen too. I was 14 years old and it left an impression on me that I will never forget. I have been watching Storm Chasers on Discovery T.V. and it reminded me of this day and how the tornado seemed to have came from no where. We ran up to the restrooms because they were brick and watched the whole thing happen with the Whipperwill boat. We were going to take my uncle on the boat that evening for dinner, but my aunt had spilled hot coffee in her lap that day and we postponed it. Wow, we could have drowned that day and thank god I am alive to talk about it.

whippoorwheel disaster

I was there. i was only 10, but my father and 3 brothers helped get the people and bodies out of the water with their fishing boat. It was terrible. I still remember seeing the tornado hit the boat. I remember the bodies being pulled ashore. My mother and 2 sisters were also there.