Path length: 9.5 miles
Width: 150 yards
Start: 38.68 / -95.65 End: 38.68 / -95.52
Corrected Coordinates based on map used in a 1999 article written by NWS Topeka’s Lead Forecaster Warren Sunkel:
Start: 38.674969 / -95.674608 End: 38.677778 / -95.514194
On the evening of June 17, 1978, a small outbreak of eight tornadoes occurred between the Great Plains and Midwest regions of the United States. The highest-rated twister occurred in Wisconsin at F2 strength, with the remaining seven only inflicting F0-F1 damage in Michigan, Iowa, and Kansas. These statistical values accepted at face value would not suggest the possibility of a historic tragedy having occurred on this day. However, just off the shores of Pomona Lake in the state of Kansas, unlikely circumstances led to one of the most bizarre catastrophes. In its wake, a glorious spectacle lay tarnished, sixteen lives lost, and much more stunned with heartache and confusion.
Pomona Lake is located in eastern Kansas, about 30 miles south of the state’s capital, Topeka, and just north of Vassar. In the late 1970s, along the water body’s southern shore was Vassar State Park (now known as Pomona State Park). For local Kansans and out-of-staters alike, this area was and still is frequented on hot summer days as the perfect getaway. Amongst the 900 campsites, one could relax along the calm waters to the wholesome sounds of families and friends jet skiing in the distance or fishermen celebrating their first catch of the day.
An unlikely staple for Vassar State Park was the Vassar Playhouse, located just south of the southern shore. Owned by Bruce and Veda Rogers, the playhouse offered spectacular renditions of classic theatricals. However, the main stage wasn’t on land. Performances were displayed on a replicated 68-foot steam-powered sternwheeler showboat as it would slowly chug along Pomona Lake on the cool summer evenings. For $15, spectators could have multi-course meals while enjoying a stage production by the Lakeside Players on deck. It was typically a tight squeeze, but the hospitality was worth every penny for those who attended. Named the Whippoorwill, this local icon featured a slick white complexion with red accents. Awnings of similar color blanketed the roof of the double-decker, offering shade before the sun would set. The Whippoorwill would carry its passengers and crew from Lighthouse Bay Marina at approximately 7:00 pm CDT off into a glorious sunset to the sound of magnificent plays time and time again.
The evening of June 17, 1978, was business as usual for the Rogers. It was a busy Saturday, and Vassar State Park hummed with happy campers. Forty-seven passengers and 13 crew members were eager and ready to enjoy a vibrant evening atop the Whippoorwill showboat. Meanwhile, a line of storms began to develop well west of Pomona Lake at around 5:00 pm CDT. The National Weather Service had noted the potential for severe thunderstorms in the evening but did not see an immediate concern for tornadoes.
At the same time, winds on Pomona Lake were beginning to calm down, and the sun started to break through the clouds. Like moths drawn to a light, boaters could not turn down these calm waters and began swarming the lake with their boats. Bill Hodgson and his 50-year-old father-in-law, Lawrence Stadel, were at the Lighthouse Bay Marina enjoying the weather as they watched the skies clear. They were surprised when someone notified them of the pending weather off to the west. “It was nice outside,” Hodgson said in a June 17, 2008 article in The Capital-Journal. They wouldn’t have guessed weather so nice would soon descend into cloudy darkness.
Meanwhile, on the southwestern shore, Herb Johnson and his family from Kansas City, MO, were settled in, enjoying a relaxing camping weekend along the calm Pomona Lake. Johnson noted the weather that Saturday afternoon in a 1999 article by NWS Topeka’s lead forecaster, Warren Sunkel. “To the north, the sky was very dark, and lightning was visible. It really looked like the bad weather had passed by.” It was around 6:30 pm CDT when Johnson noticed that the beautiful weather began to hint at more inclement intentions. Simultaneously, the 60 passengers and crew began boarding the Whippoorwill. On this particular evening, plans were going accordingly. The staff was set to perform a lighthearted musical, “Dames at Sea.” At approximately 7:00 pm CDT, the packed showboat began leaving the Lighthouse Bay Marina into Pomona Lake.
Onboard, the crew began preparing for the highly anticipated evening of a “dinner, play, and moonlight cruise. They were to be well fed Saturday night: pork chops and cider, fresh broccoli with lemon butter, baked potato, homemade french bread, chocolate cake for dessert,” noted on a June 19, 1978 edition of The Wichita Eagle.
20-year-old Larry Pressgrove and 17-year-old co-worker James Olson were two crew members working on the Whippoorwill that evening. They were helping serve food to the gleeful passengers. After which, they were preparing to perform their roles in Dames at Sea, a play Pressgrove was already familiar with during his high school days. Like many of the young crew members who participated in theater, he enjoyed his unique summer job with the Rogers family. The evening was looking to be one full of laughter and wholesome interaction. All of this began to change dramatically as a funnel cloud developed just west of Pomona Lake.
At approximately 7:10 pm CDT, less than a mile west of Pomona Lake, a slender funnel began to slither from the clouds, slowly drifting southeast towards the western shore. Witnesses aboard the showboat and around Vassar State Park watched as the twister rapidly developed and drifted into the water.
Bill Fisher was one of many to witness the tornado form from his home. He lived on the southern shore of Pomona Lake. In the June 19, 1978 edition of The Wichita Eagle, Fisher described multiple funnels over the lake as they danced around each other, sucking water into the air.
From their campsite, Herb Johnson watched as the Whippoorwill and company passed a mere 30 feet offshore from his family’s location. Passengers were in the middle of enjoying their evening meals as the vessel passed out of his sight to the west. Around the same time, Johnson noticed the waterspout sliding into view. “West of us, I could see a whirling water spray, much like you see on a playground blowing leaves and dust, but much larger,” he described in Sunkel’s 1999 article.
On the Whippoorwill, the unexpected funnel caught the eyes of the passengers and crew. What initially began as a fascination of seeing a deceptively harmless waterspout, quickly changed to a sense of danger. The owner of the showboat, Bruce Rogers, and his children were among those on the vessel. Rogers also noted the vicious spray of water and soon realized he and the rest of the 59 aboard were in its path.
21-year-old crewmember Tom Mitchell was on the top deck attending to guests when he saw the funnel. “We’d been out about 15 minutes – that’s all. About a minute before, we saw a water spout. Other than that I have no idea. It just turned into a funnel,” Mitchell recalled in the June 19, 1978 edition of The Wichita Eagle. Larry Pressgrove was still in the boat’s galley preparing for the show. He was unaware of the approaching vortex and the growing concerns above him.
Rogers snapped into action, ordering his captain to head back to shore quickly. Their valiant attempt proved too little, as the tornado moved faster than the boat could handle. The impact was imminent. As the twister caught the showboat, waves began battering the sides, and winds ripped at the upper deck’s awnings.
Having just seen the Whippoorwill pass by him towards the funnel, Johnson ran to get a better look. He described the horror which followed in Sunkel’s 1999 article:
“It was then that I could see very clearly that the whirlwind had developed into a smoke-colored finger spout. It appeared to suddenly change direction 90 degrees and go straight for the Whippoorwill. It came from the rear on the right side, struck the boat, and turned it over. It didn’t lift the boat out of the water; it seemingly just turned it over as if it had just pushed it over.
It wasn’t very big, probably not over a hundred feet high and maybe 25 or 30 feet wide at the most. It appeared to dissipate back into a water spray immediately as it had been when I first saw it. If the Whippoorwill had had just another minute or two, it would have made it to our shore. We stood in utter disbelief as the boat was turned over and could hear people screaming for help. They were splashing around in the water and drowning right before our eyes. We had no way to help them. They were too far away to reach.”
Chaos ensued aboard the Whippoorwill. Dining furniture, clothing, food, and people went down with the watercraft. Mitchell, who was near the railing on the upper deck, immediately found himself in the lake. The rest of the passengers and crew members went down with him. Some who could not swim under the weight of their clothing were frantically grabbing for any stray piece of debris to cling onto. Others swam to the portion of the overturned vessel that was still afloat. The remaining passengers and crew in the galley were trapped under the dark waters. Those trapped included Larry Pressgrove and James Olson.
“I was in the galley and all I knew was that the boat was tipping over,” Pressgrove said in the June 19, 1978, edition of The Wichita Eagle. “One minute we were serving salads, the next I was under water,” Pressgrove later continued in a June 17, 2008 article from The Capital-Journal. He found himself dazed, confused, desperately trying to find a way to breathe. He found a small pocket of air within the galley, now upside down. Trying to remain calm, Pressgrove rode out his horrific circumstance, hoping someone could find and help him before running out of air or sinking with the boat.
While thinking of ways to get out, Pressgrove couldn’t help but wonder what happened to James Olson, the other young man with him in the galley when the boat capsized. It was a disorienting experience trying to figure out where the front of the vessel was. But the survivor mentality took over. If he wasn’t rescued, a backup plan was needed.
Herb Johnson was still watching the immediate aftermath from his campsite. He observed other boaters on the lake who witnessed the Whippoorwill overturn scramble to the scene within minutes, helping people from the debris-filled water.
Meanwhile, Lawrence Stadel was back at the Lighthouse Bay Marina and saw the harmless-looking funnel move over the water. He was unaware of the ongoing disaster out on Pomona Lake. That was until a distraught boater sped into the marina, yelling that the Whippoorwill had been capsized. Having previous diving experience, Stadel quickly grabbed his scuba gear and set out to the overturned vessel on his boat.
Veda Rogers was back at the Vassar Playhouse, tending to business while her husband and children were on the Whippoorwill for their recurring show. She was startled when a man screeched into the parking lot with the same traumatic message Stadel had received.
Stadel arrived at a horrific sight and joined the good samaritans, which had flooded the scene with their boats offering any help they could. One of the volunteers grabbed Tom Mitchell from the lake. Stadel quickly surveyed the capsized vessel, surrounded by debris and people scrambling for the nearest boat, and thought anyone still onboard when it flipped over was surely dead by then. Stadel’s son-in-law Bill Hodgson was one of those frantically saving anyone he could find. At this point, survivors who’d been rescued were in shock, shivering from the chilly water as they were carried back to shore. By now, Stadel was in his diving suit and began the dangerous swim under the Whippoorwill, hopeful of finding survivors.
Still in his air pocket, Larry Pressgrove began banging against the hull, hoping rescuers outside could hear him. He heard someone else close by start doing the same. In the adjacent boiler room, it was James Olson who had also found a way to breathe in the dark waters. Stadel knew the Whippoorwill well, thinking if there were any survivors, they would be in these two rooms where air pockets were possible.
Navigating through the debris-filled water, Stadel’s assumption proved correct. He found Olson first. There was enough space to talk where they planned their escape. Olson then grabbed Stadel’s foot as they exited the vessel. On the surface, Stadel heard more tapping from the boat and returned under.
After being trapped for around 45 minutes, Larry Pressgrove was next. But this time, there was not enough room for Stadel to communicate his plan. In a leap of faith, he pulled the young crew member under the water, hoping he had taken a big enough breath to make it. And he had. “Total hero,” Pressgrove praised Stadel in the June 17, 2008 article by The Capital-Journal.
While many of the 60 passengers and crew were rescued from the capsized Whippoorwill, sixteen tragically drowned, including an unborn child. One of the sixteen was a showboat crew member. Fourteen of those who survived were injured, and subsequently, many were taken to hospitals in Topeka, Emporia, and Kansas City.
Upon leaving the Whippoorwill showboat in turmoil, the narrow funnel continued southeast about two miles towards the Pomona Lake dam, where it then generally turned more to the northeast. The waterspout finally exited the lake on the eastern shore, causing minor damage to the nearby Michigan Valley Campgrounds. From here, the tornado moved approximately 2.5 miles northeast before lifting sometime after 7:25 pm CDT.
Within an hour of the Whippoorwill capsizing, volunteer rescuers were joined by Osage County police officers, Kansas Highway Patrol officials, and Topeka Salvation Army workers. The sky was slowly shifting from light to dark as night approached. Precious time to rescue any possible survivors still trapped beneath the vessel was fading. Herb Johnson described the scene in Sunkel’s 1999 article. “The rescue operations occurred at our campsite. We were the closest people to the capsizing and saw it better than even those on the Whippoorwill itself. It is a terrible thing to see families laughing and having a good time and then moments later see them in panic, agony, despair, and even death.”
By 9:00 pm CDT, 35 divers arrived from Shawnee County, KS, and Lee’s Summit, MO, for additional recovery efforts. The Salvation Army had set up food trucks for rescuers and the growing crowd of nervous spectators. Darkness had fallen, and floodlights were set around the scene to assist. Many onlookers gathered around from nearby campsites and anxiously watched as cables were attached from large wreckers to the Whippoorwill. When the showboat was slowly set upright and towed to the shore, witnesses recall the grief-stricken crowd as bodies began to be discovered.
Vassar State Park’s manager, Ben Streeter, expressed his trauma in the June 17, 2008, article from The Capital-Journal. “The feelings of that time are difficult to forget. You can’t look at two small drowned children and not have deep, deep feelings.” Also on the scene was Major Dale Horn of the Salvation Army. As recovery efforts continued into the night, he became a counselor for survivors and families of those who drowned. “It’s difficult to find the words to say. They were all stunned. They couldn’t believe this thing had happened,” Horn said in the June 19, 1978, edition of The Wichita Eagle.
Divers continued their search well into the night. One of the divers, Steve Swim, described not being able to see much. It was dark enough underwater during the day. At 2:00 am CDT the following morning on June 18, divers called off the search for the night and resumed again at 7:00 am.
By 1:00 pm, divers suspended their attempts to find the remaining people still unaccounted for. The rest of the search consisted of small boats dragging the waters, which recovered five of the deceased. By the end of the day, 9-year-old Melissa Wright was the final passenger who was still missing. Her mother, Sandra, 34, and grandmother, Grace Vogel, 66, had already been identified as two of sixteen who drowned. Melissa was finally found on the morning of June 20.
With everyone accounted for, reality set in. Families affected by the loss of life and the Rogers’ business, needed help. Ben Streeter recalled one man walking up to him and handing over $400, thinking some would need it immediately. The Whippoorwill showboat required repairs, so the Rogers held a live performance on July 1 at nearby Winfield High School to raise money to offset costs. The play was Dames at Sea, which was the same one planned on the evening of the tornado. The Rogers churned on with their business for a few more years before closing their doors for good.
According to the June 17, 2008 article by The Capital-Journal, Larry Pressgrove remained fixed on living through the performing arts. He moved up to Broadway as a music director and has performed many times live on-stage. He still views Bruce and Veda Rogers as family.
Lawrence Stadel went on to own the Lighthouse Bay Marina for years, even buying and converting the Whippoorwill into a houseboat. He held the vessel and lived the rest of his life peacefully on Pomona Lake until he died in 2008. Stadel’s son-in-law Bill Hodgson became the marina’s new owner upon his passing. The Whippoorwill has since been repurchased by brothers Matt and Josh Abramovitz of Valley Falls, KS. As of 2018, the boat resides on Lake Perry, just northeast of Topeka.
The tornado itself should not have been as impactful as it was, given its relatively weak nature. In Kansas, these funnels are considered average. However, if there were ever an example of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, as well as that all weak and strong twisters are dangerous, this would be the one.
Reverend Richard E. Taylor Jr. of Topeka summarized the communal disaster in a brilliant emotional portrayal on June 21, 1978, in The Wichita Eagle:
“Words cannot describe the sorrow being experienced by those who lost loved ones at Pomona Lake last Saturday evening. We knew some of them. Our hearts are heavy too.
Kansas is a mighty big state – more than 80,000 square miles of geography that is the best in the west. What are the odds of a tornado developing suddenly and being in that place at that moment where passengers on our only showboat are just being served iced tea?
On Tuesday, June 13, my wife and I drove to Vassar Playhouse and celebrated our wedding anniversary. The cast of Fiddler on the Roof was superb. We lived with them as they experienced the joy and heartache of Russian slavery.
At intermission, Mrs. Rogers served hot blueberry pie! Her fingers must have been tired from playing the piano throughout the first act. How wonderful it is to have persons giving of themselves to bring joy to others through the arts.
Last Sunday evening I sat in the yard and watched a glorious Kansas sunset. The top leaves of the cottonwood were nearly motionless and the air was cool. This is the kind of Kansas that gave such pleasure to passengers on the Whippoorwill. What a contrast to 24 hours earlier when out of this same Kansas sky came death and destruction.
As the sun disappeared in the west, a giant jet took off from Forbes Field, climbing and heading east. They crash at times, but flights continue. If there had been a question of safety, Mr. Rogers would not have been aboard with his children.
I do not understand why a tornado struck the happy passengers and crew of the Whippoorwill. I do not know why cancer develops on the vocal chord of a non-smoker. I only know we must continue to give our best.
Page 9A of your June 19 edition [of the Wichita Eagle] carries a picture of the Rogers watching as bodies are brought in. Words cannot express the sorrow they are experiencing.
Bruce and Veda Rogers have given of themselves through the years that others might enjoy the finest productions of an American stage. In whatever way they think best, may they and the Lakeside Players continue.”
As of the publication of this article, the Pomona Lake tornado officially stands as the deadliest with a rating of F1 or weaker in the United States and is still one of Kansas’ worst boating accidents. Additionally, only the Andover F5 tornado of April 26, 1991, has caused more fatalities since the Whippoorwill showboat tragedy in the state.
In Loving Memory
Dr. Muriel L. Fuller, 65
Charles Alton Griffin, 33
Carolyn Marie Lilly Hartwich, 40
Donald Morgan “Don” Hawthorne, 35
Dr. Zubaidah Sinaro Isa, 55
Tina Elaine Kramer, 17
Mildred Sarah Baxter Lilly, 79
Mary Pamela “Pam” List Nelson, 29
Judy Kay Vines Patterson, 26
Unborn baby of Mrs. Judy Patterson
Dr. Sarah Rebecca Reed, 64
Dr. Norman Louis Schwartz, 48
Grace Irene Kingsbury Vogel, 66
Norris Edward Weiss, 47
Melisa Leigh “Missy” Wright, 9
Sandra Doreen Vogel Wright, 34
We gathered information for this event from the SPC & NCDC Databases, meteorologist and NWS Topeka lead forecaster Warren Sunkel’s 1999 article, newspaper reports, and Thomas Grazulis in Significant Tornadoes and found the following differences:
- Grazulis lists an F2 rating.
- NCDC and SPC list an F1 rating.
- Grazulis and NWS Topeka list a path length of 8 miles.
- NCDC and SPC list a path length of 7.3 miles.
- When overlaid on Google Earth, a detailed map of the tornado’s path from Warren Sunkel’s 1999 article reveals a 9.5 mile path length.
- Warren Sunkel’s 1999 article features multiple images of the tornado with estimated time stamps ranging from 7:10-7:25 pm CDT. With a duration of at least 15 minutes, the tornado would have began before 7:10 pm, and ended after 7:25 pm.
- Remaining sources have a start and end time of 7:15 pm CDT.
- Newspapers list up to 14 injuries.
- Remaining sources list 3 injuries.
NCDC Storm Events Database Entry-Osage County
The 1978 Whippoorwill Tornado – NWS Topeka, KS
Grazulis, T.P. (1993). Significant Tornadoes, 1680-1991. St. Johnsbury, Vt: The Tornado Project Of Environmental Films. Page 1204.
Hollingsworth, B. (2008, June 17). 30 years later, disaster vivid: Tornado claimed 16 lives on steamboat. Cjonline.
Hrenchir, T. (2018, June 10). “Whippoorwill” paddle boat to cruise again: brothers fix boat involved in 1978 disaster. Cjonline.
Rickel, C. Pomona Lake tornado resulted in tragedy. OttawaHerald.
Sunkel, W. (1999). The Whippoorwill Tornado of June 1978: A Retrospective View on the Occasion of Its 20th Anniversary. Sound.net.
ESU SLIM department plants tree in memory of Zubaida Isa after Whippoorwill boating tragedy.KVOE.
Kansas Department of Wildlife & Parks. Pomona.
The Capital Times 20 Jun 1978, Page 25. Newspapers.com
The Fresno Bee 23 Jun 1978, Page 116. Newspapers.com
The Wichita Beacon 20 Jun 1978, Page 1. Newspapers.com
The Wichita Eagle 18 Jun 1978, Page 1. Newspapers.com
The Wichita Eagle 19 Jun 1978, Page 1. Newspapers.com
The Wichita Eagle 19 Jun 1978, Page 9. Newspapers.com
The Wichita Eagle 19 Jun 1978, Page 8. Newspapers.com
The Wichita Eagle 20 Jun 1978, Page 4. Newspapers.com
The Wichita Eagle 20 Jun 1978, Page 5. Newspapers.com
The Wichita Eagle 21 Jun 1978, Page 42. Newspapers.com
The Wichita Eagle 23 Jun 1978, Page 29. Newspapers.com
The Wichita Eagle 25 Jun 1978, Page 1. Newspapers.com
The Wichita Eagle 25 Jun 1978, Page 16. Newspapers.com
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