13 at 65: 30 years later, Topeka West HS remembers tornado

Published: Nov. 15, 2018 at 10:40 PM CST
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November 15, 1988 seemed a typical day at Topeka West High School - except for the weather.

Language arts teacher Melanie Ralston remembers the sky was a strange color.

"It was one of those days that had a different feel to it," she said.

Just after 2pm, it would happen. Teacher, and current athletic director, Richard Mariani was headed to the gym for basketball tryouts.

"Frank Walton jumps up and opens the window and about the time he opens the window to look outside, he sees a two-by-four go by, then all of a sudden all the windows in gym just went bang, bang, bang - right down the row," he remembers. "It's true what they say - it sounded like a freight train going over. We walked in the gym and got all the kids out of the gym, and the skylights were spinning. We had three or four skylights that blew off and the others were spinning."

Ralston had just gotten in her car to head to the nearby grocery store, about 30 seconds away.

"As I pulled into the parking lot, I noticed all the windows in the apartment complex next to the school were open....until I realized they don't have windows, nor do they have a roof," she said. "By the time it took me to get back, all the cars in the front lot were hit."

Beyond the school, homes and businesses in the SW 21st and Fairlawn area also had heavy damage.

Both Richard and Melanie say what struck them most in the aftermath were the students.

"It was silent, that was the first thing that hit me," Melanie recalls" There might have been 200 to 300 kids in that basement and all you could feel was heat coming from the room, and silence - and their eyes!"

"I couldn't have been more proud of the kids," Richard agreed. "The kids just handled it so well."

Fortunately, there were no serious injuries, just a few students with scrapes from flying glass.

"The kids make fun of tornado drills, fire drills - ask why do we have to do it, but every student that day did exactly what we asked them to do," Melanie said.

She even still has the t-shirt one student designed afterward. It features a graphic of a tornado, with the building, a car, and a person, plus the words, "I survived the Topeka West tornado," and the date of the event.

"He sold them and the money didn't go to himself. He donated that money," she said.

Thirty years later, from near newbies to now nearing retirement, that day in class leaves lessons tough to top.

That's an experience I'll never forget - I mean that is a day I will never forget," Richard said.