The Night The Lights Went Out - disabled person faces a tornado alone - Brief Article
by Nancy G. Holman
The disabled face many challenges. But perhaps the toughest is facing possible death, and being powerless to stop it. As a man with quadriplegia, Curtis Dougherty lives much of his life in his motorized wheelchair. A counselor
at the Southeast Kansas Independent Living Resource Center in Chanute, KS, he commutes daily from his apartment in Parsons
to help empower other people with disabilities. Although he needs assistance with certain tasks to remain independent, Curtis,
41, is a survivor.
But what Curtis Dougherty
didn't plan on was that the same courage, which urges him to keep going when others quit, would be put to the test one windy April night.
"It was about 8:30 or 9:00
p.m. on April 19," he recalled. "My attendant had just put me into bed, and I was watching TV after she left. An announcer
said a tornado was possibly going to pass through Parsons. A picture of a tornado with a little hook in it appeared on the
radar screen -- we were supposed to watch for that."
Suddenly, the TV screen went
blank, and the electricity went off in Curtis' high-rise brick apartment complex. It was completely dark outside. Curtis'
first-floor bedroom window was open, and he heard a terrible whooshing sound, like a train passing by. Curtis, who has no
mobility once he is put into bed, was alone and helpless in a tornado.
"I live a half-block from
the train tracks, but there was no train on the tracks at that time of night," he said. "I knew we were probably being hit
by a tornado. There was lots of noise."
The noise of the 158-206 mph
wind tunnel that wreaked $35 million worth of damage in three counties was unbelievable. Though Parsons (pop. 11,413) lies in a tornado belt which encompasses parts of Kansas and Oklahoma, it had not been struck
by a wind disaster in over 100 years. Parsonians were lulled into thinking that their little
town would never be hit again ... at least not while they were alive.
They were wrong.
Janet Thompson, Curtis' attendant,
was frantic with worry about him. She had to be sure he hadn't been killed in the disaster. As the
tornado went shrieking by his window, Curtis' telephone rang. It was Janet, calling from the First Four Square Church a mile
and a half away. Curtis quickly assured her that he was still alive, and all right.
"Janet could hear the tornado
roaring," he remembered. "The phone lines were buried and they were okay, so we were able to talk during the tornado. It was
a real quick tornado -- just a couple of minutes, and then it was over."
Curtis told Janet that the
tornado was now headed her way, and to stay at the church. Though he was about a block away from the tornado's horrific main
force, he could hear the terrifying sounds of trees being uprooted in the darkness. But Curtis, who had been in several previous
tornadoes, was not terrified, even though he was helpless.
"I figured it was either my
time to go, or it wasn't," he said. "I was stuck, but I wasn't really afraid. I didn't think the high-rise would fall, and it didn't. I was thankful that we weren't hit directly."
Though Janet later returned
to Curtis' apartment to check on him, Curtis was the one who reassured his frightened attendant.
What will he do if another
"I'd just ride through it
again," he says matter-of-factly. "There's not much you can do - unless you have a back-up attendant. If you live alone, you
should throw blankets or a mattress over yourself."
"This tornado blew into our
town, and then it blew out," he said. "I'm just thankful I'm still here to talk about it."
Curtis is employed by SKIL,
which operates six southeastern Kansas independent living centers. SKIL helps people with disabilities or disabling environments
live more independently.
COPYRIGHT 2001 Cheever Publishing, Inc.
COPYRIGHT 2001 Gale Group