PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) – Garry Lucas wasn’t on the clock when the tornado swept through Vancouver the afternoon of April 5, 1972. The young Clark County deputy was working the night shift that week, but had the police scanner on while he was at home. 

“I heard the call go out about the tornado and the school, so I grabbed my uniform coat, jumped in my car and drove over to Peter S. Ogden School,” he said. 

The elementary school was demolished by the EF3 tornado. At the time, more than 500 students attended the school.  Students at the nearby Fort Vancouver High School watched the elementary school collapse and rushed to help the younger students. 

Tornado hits Portland, OR and Vancouver, WA on April 5, 1972
Tornado damge inside a classroom at Peter Ogden Elementary school in Vancouver, WA on April 5, 1972. (KOIN Archives)

That’s when Lucas arrived. 

“It was a real shock to walk up and find major portions of the school just piles of rubble and brick,” he said. “Everybody was just pawing through the bricks to make sure that we didn’t have anybody under there.” 

He said school administrators were making sure everyone was accounted for. 

Lucas doesn’t believe anyone was killed at the school and only remembers one serious injury. News reports from the time say about 70 school children were injured. 

He spent a couple hours helping at the school before next responding to a woman who was killed when the roof blew off a Vancouver store. 

“One of the laminated beams had shattered and one of the pieces flying through the air went through a windshield and impaled the lady in her car,” Lucas remembered. 

He said it wasn’t a pleasant experience responding to that scene, but he did what he had to as a sheriff’s office deputy. 

The entire event shocked the community, Lucas said. A lot of work went into the recovery process and he said it took about a year-and-a-half before the city returned to some semblance of normal. 

Lucas spent 47 years with the Clark County Sheriff’s Office and was the Clark County Sheriff for part of his career. While the 1972 tornado was the first one he responded to, it wasn’t the last. Several smaller tornadoes swept through the county in the decades since then. 

He said the EF1 tornado that impacted the Hazel Dell area in 2008 pulled some shingles from his birth mother’s house. 

KOIN 6 News asked Lucas if the 1972 tornado made Vancouverites any more equipped to handle a similar natural disaster in the future. He said he’s unsure. The community can sometimes have a short memory. 

Lucas said the tornado taught him a lesson he carried with him during his 47 years on the force: be prepared. People should always have extra supplies of food and water in case of a natural disaster. He said you never know what’s going to happen in a day, but you can plan for it.