Archive for Wednesday, May 7, 2003

Tonganoxie husband, wife see separate tornadoes

May 7, 2003

You wouldn't think that a married couple, who happens to be 30 miles apart for the afternoon, would both wind up in the paths of a tornado.

When Sunday's twister hit southern Leavenworth County, Rebecca Altenhofen was at her home on Woodend Road, about six miles southeast of Tonganoxie.

¢ Dumping of storm debris is available at the landfill at Kansas Highway 16 and Haigwood Road between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. weekdays.

¢ It is available only to Leavenworth County residents who have Leavenworth County license plats on their vehicles, according to sheriff's Lt. Jim Murray.

¢ The county's solid waste department will pick up white goods -- including refrigerators and other appliances -- and household hazardous materials on the curb or road edge.

Her husband, Damian Altenhofen, was in Kansas City, Kan., near 87th Street and Leavenworth Road.

Both areas were hard hit by Sunday's spree of tornadoes.

Rebecca saw the giant funnel cloud that shredded her neighbor's farmstead. And Damian, who was visiting family in Kansas City, Kan., experienced a tornado of his own, certain he might be facing death as he sheltered his son.

The couple had been to Kansas City, Kan., to attend their niece's first communion. Rebecca had returned home and Damian went on to his sister's house for a family dinner.

"Rebecca was home maybe 10 minutes and she called me," he said. "She said, 'I'm looking at a tornado right now.'"

There were two tornadoes, Damian said.

"There was the one that took out Bob Fox's house and she could see it over the hill," Damian said. "And she could see another tornado dancing across the field -- nobody has talked about that one."

But Damian said on Monday he later talked to a neighbor who also had seen more than one tornado.

"Rebecca said it was white, skinny and ropey and it wasn't touching the ground, but every once in a while it would go down to the ground and pick up dirt."

Damian was relieved when his wife called him back 15 or 20 minutes later to tell him she was safe.

"But she said that she was watching the news and they were saying there was a tornado up by the speedway and heading our way," Damian said.

It started to hail outside. The parents -- Altenhofen and Paul and Theresa Mast -- put their three children in the center of the house, which doesn't have a basement.

"Paul and I went back outside. ... Above us all the way around the clouds were going in a circle in a clockwise direction if you looked straight up," Damian said. "Then we started hearing it to the southwest. It was getting louder and louder -- it was like a train but it had a deeper growl to it."

When the trees started snapping the men headed inside.

"Up to that point we hadn't seen anything," Damian said. "All of a sudden there was debris from as far south as we could see and as far north as we could see. ... We both ran inside as fast as we could we got down with the kids and my sister."

The storm lasted about two minutes.

"We said a lot of prayers," Damian said. "I remember thinking we weren't going to make it."

Damian's son, Christian, who is 10, kept telling his father that he loved him. Only later did the boy tell his father he was afraid his father was going to die and Christian wanted to make sure he knew that he loved him.

For the next four hours, Damian and Paul helped neighbors. The Mast house was still standing. Others weren't.

The view was shocking.

"There was a house with a car in the basement -- it wasn't the owner's car," Damian said. "There was a school bus in their backyard. They didn't even know where that came from."

Today, Damian is grateful he, and his wife and family are still alive. Two close calls in one day is two too many.

"There was one point where the house felt like it was going to lift," Damian said. "We said, 'This is it.' A bunch of the houses around us did lift -- I don't know why this one didn't."

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