VANCOUVER, Wash. (KOIN) — Sharon Graser was 31, a wife and mother of three boys. She died 50 years ago — April 5, 1972 — saving her youngest son and other children at the Vancouver bowling alley where she worked when a tornado hit.
All told, six people were killed in the deadliest tornado in the history of the Pacific Northwest. Around 1 p.m. the tornado began west of the Portland airport and destroyed docks on Marine Drive. It moved across the Columbia River to Vancouver, cut a path through about 50 homes with the worst damage at Andresen and Fourth Plain Boulevard.
Peter S. Ogden Elementary was destroyed. The bowling alley where Sharon Graser worked was wiped out. It then demolished a grocery store and killed 5 more people.
Though the tornado only lasted minutes, the path it carved in the lives it touched continues a half-century later.
‘You’re 10 years old, your whole world is gone’
Russ and Rick Graser were both at Ogden Elementary when the tornado hit. Russ was 10 and in a classroom. Rick was 12 and outside playing baseball on the playground.
“We’d never seen hail this big before,” Russ said.
“I looked over to Portland, and still to this day I have never seen clouds that black,” Rick told KOIN 6 News.
Then it just quit hailing.
“Everything was just, it was an eerie still. And it didn’t feel right. It felt wicked. It just felt evil, whatever this was,” Rick said. “The feeling that I had, this was no good, and this is gonna be no good at all. This is bad, whatever this is, this is bad.”
Russ said he heard some noise above his head and saw “the roof is flexing. I dove under the table. The roof was gone.”
Rick said he looked up in the air and saw the rotation. A teacher bought the students inside. “I looked back and a beam came down through the ceiling, right on the desk where I was underneath hit. It broke the desk in half.”
“I still don’t understand why none of us were sucked out of the classroom,” Russ said.
Moments after it passed, Rick ran to the bowling alley, hoping to find his mom. She was watching 15 kids in the daycare at Sunrise Lanes.
“My little brother, Randy, that was in the nursery with her at that day, he was 5,” Rick said. “He said that mom ran to the window and looked outside and yelled back: ‘Kids! Get under your tables!’ And they were in the process of getting under their tables when this thing hit. And when I say hit might as well just say a bomb went off, because it exploded.”
Rick later learned of his mom’s last moments from a man helping her lift kids from the rubble.
“My mom bent down underneath that void to lift, lift the little girl out to Earl, and Earl said he just grabbed her and the ceiling and everything collapsed right on top of her.”
The brothers were left to somehow carry on. Rick said their dad, Marv told them “to just get over it.” The schools did not provide grief counseling as is common today.
Russ, who grew up to become a teacher in Longview, always thought his mom was beautiful. “You’re 10 years old. Your whole world is gone. I often wonder how my life would’ve turned out had she lived.”
“She had kind of like an aura around her, is the way I explain it, a sense of peace and admitting from her and love,” Rick said.
They assumed the role their mom did — cooking, cleaning, yard work, helping raise their little brother. Rick said it shook his faith in God for years and said he still suffers from PTSD from that day.
Russ said his mother is definitely a hero. “I think that’s what a lot of people fail to understand is that she sacrificed her life to save the kids that were in the bowling alley. And left her own children, you know, motherless.”
“She’d give her life for those kids. And she did,” Rick said. “She ended up dying, saving those kids.”