Grief shakes survivors identifying storm's dead

April 28, 1991|By Anne Fitzgerald | Anne Fitzgerald,Knight-Ridder News Service

ANDOVER, Kan. -- Her shrieks pierced the air and everyone froze.

"Goddammit, Goddammit," she said over and over, unloading wells of grief with each exclamation.

"That's my father and my brother. Oh my god, oh my god, what am I supposed to do?"

It was nearly noon yesterday at the temporary morgue at the command center in Andover, and the young woman dropped to her knees, sobbing, as Red Cross volunteers and a companion tried to console her.

Nearby, at the entrance to a restaurant turned into the morgue, Aleta Blue lost it. She and the other volunteers had held their grief in check all morning, she said, her lips quivering with emotion. Until that point, most of those identifying the dead had kept their composure too.

Ms. Blue stood in the lobby holding a half-eaten ham sandwich and cried.

The storm late Friday that took at least 19 of her neighbors' lives and leveled hundreds of homes in this small community five miles east of Wichita had missed hers -- by only two houses.

"It was coming for us, and it turned," she said, turning away in tears. "Everybody's been in control until now."

Officials had tabulated the cold facts by early yesterday: $50 million in property damage; more than 300 homes and 11 businesses destroyed.

The command center was in full swing at dawn. The 40-acre trailer park two blocks south that was no more had been neatly divided into six grids for emergency crews to carefully comb through for more bodies. Heavy equipment had been parked down the street, roadblocks put in place, passes distributed, shelter for the homeless and food for the hungry arranged, and even cellular phones and a facsimile machine put into service.

But the emotional wreck was not nearly as easy to calculate or control.

"It really hasn't sunk in yet," said Andover Mayor Jack Finlason, main marshal for official responses.

Gratitude for being alive prevailed. Larry Price, a Learjet service mechanic, and his wife, Rita, a Wichita schoolteacher, were at work when the storm hit. He had called home earlier in the day to remind his 14-year-old daughter of the family's tornado drill: Go to the basement and get under the bed. And don't forget, keep your little brother with you. She did exactly that, and they survived, as did the family pets.

Mr. Price was so happy he could have cried when he found out they were safe. The family's home was destroyed, but "his babies" were OK.

"I think she saved her and him. She did good. . . . I'm proud of her," he said, with tears in his eyes.

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