Pomona Lake tornado resulted in tragedy
By CLEON RICKEL
Herald News Editor
On June 17, 1978, 15 people were drowned when a small tornado hit the show boat Whippoorwill as it was making one of its dinner-theater cruises on Pomona Lake.
Later, then-Osage County attorney Mike Hines ruled that one victim's unborn fetus was a 16th victim.
The Whippoorwill disaster, one of the deadliest tornadoes in Kansas history, has been the subject of National Weather Service seminars.
When the disaster happened, the weather service had issued a tornado watch for the area when the Whippoorwill, with 47 passengers and 13 crew, left its mooring at Pomona Lake for a dinner theater cruise.
According to Richard and Kathleen Hughes, former Ottawans who witnessed the disaster and related it to an Ottawa Herald reporter more than 20 years ago, the sky was partly cloudy with storm clouds building to the northeast of the lake when the Whippoorwill left the dock.
According to The Herald, within minutes, the Hugheses saw what looked like white smoke build on the far west end of the lake and move down the lake. As it grew bigger, a funnel dropped out of the cloud and roared toward the boat.
Although the boat spun around and fled for the shore, the tornado hit the boat, which disappeared in a spray of water, they related.
Afterwards, they saw that the boat had capsized and people were trying to climb up on the hull.
Mike Gullett, a Joplin, Mo., news photographer who worked at The Herald when the disaster occurred, said he was driving from Beto Junction to Ottawa when he noticed the tornado.
He stopped to take photos and went on to Ottawa, which was under a tornado warning because of another storm.
"I didn't know what was going on," he said in 1988, 20 years after the disaster. "No sooner than I got through the front door, Bob Wellington (Herald publisher) called me to tell me what had happened."
Gullett headed for the lake.
In the meantime, rescuers in boats began picking survivors off the hull and out of the water.
One rescuer, Lawrence Stadel, Vassar, who owned the Lighthouse Marina 20 years ago, told The Herald in 1978 how he picked people from the water, then donned Scuba gear and found two men trapped in air pockets under the ship.
When Gullett arrived, the survivors had been rescued. He stayed overnight and the next day as Osage County rescuers began the process of recovering the victims.
"It wasn't a real happy time," Gullett said.
"But that's part of the business. You see people when they're at the pinnacle of happiness, and you see them during the other times.
"It's something that stays with you."
The accident was called a one-in-a-million incident by weather experts.
The Whippoorwill never sailed again. What remains of its rusty hulk sits amidst weeds in a lot east of Vassar.
The boat's owners, Bruce and Veda Rogers, kept the Vassar Playhouse, which was associated with the Whippoorwill, for a few years longer but closed it. A new Vassar dinner theater restarted a couple years ago under new ownership.
Find out more about this project.