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KS survivors search wreckage

Debbi Fager-Maghe sifted through the dirt with a stick, looking for scattered family heirlooms.

BY TRAVIS DUNN | FRANKLIN, Kan. | May 9, 2003

"How do you itemize 87 years of living?"

—Debbi Fager-Maghe

Debbi Fager-Maghe sifted through the dirt with a stick, looking for scattered family heirlooms.

"We can't find the major appliances," she said, "but we found my father-in-law's wedding band."

Fager-Maghe's mother-in-law, Josephine Maghe, died Sunday night, killed by the F4 intensity tornado that destroyed this town.

Maghe, 87, was alone that night. Her husband died 10 months ago. Ordinarily, Josephine would have been with her granddaughter, Danielle. But Danielle was married a week before the tornado, and she was on her honeymoon in North Carolina.

"Most of her house was totally lifted up obliterated just all over the place," Fager-Maghe said.

"It's tough to absorb. It's tough to accept," said Joe Maghe, Josephine's son. "But it's like my father told me, 'You know there are worse things than death.' All we can hope for is that it was quick and the weather guys said the winds were over 200 miles per hour so we know it was."

"They were just common simple folks," said Fager-Maghe. "They loved their garden. You would find them in the backyard swinging on their swing."

She and her husband, and in-law Lisa Rhodes (Josephine was her husband's aunt), sift through the wreckage that is scattered all over town.

Josephine collected all sorts of antiques, and that's mainly what they're looking for. They haven't found much, but they did locate Josephine's silver dollar collection, or what was left of it.

"I know we'll be out here several months from now," Rhodes said. "I know I will."

Mostly they want to document the losses for the insurance company, but that's not easy when no one kept a written list of all the antiques Josephine had collected in her lifetime.

"How do you itemize 87 years of living?" Maghe wondered, as she picked up a shard of antique glassware.

The rest of Franklin didn't fare much better. No one else in town was killed, but both sides of the main street were littered with the remains of the community. Almost nothing stayed standing.

"It pretty much wiped out the town of Franklin," Fager-Maghe said. "I mean, there was not much in Franklin, except the post office, and that was wiped out too."

Volunteer response here was massive and almost immediate. Across the road from where Josephine's house stood, local police set up a command center, where the National Guard is also headquartered. Behind the command center is The Salvation Army's base.

Lt. Craig Lurtz manned the canteen here, and four other vehicles drove around the area and delivered meals.

Friday, Lurtz, said, The Salvation Army planned to set up a large tent as well as a barbeque.

"It's going to make things much easier," he said.

Both the American Red Cross and the Salvation Army have large offices in Pittsburgh, a few miles south, where they run their larger relief centers.

But north of Franklin, at Northeast High School in Arma, Adventist Community Services (ACS) set up a donation center for clothing and canned food, said Don Whitson, an ACS coordinator.

"This is something that FEMA has asked us to do in times of disaster - to handle the donations and run the warehouse," Whitson said.

In the high school gym, he said, were "little Wal-Mart" tables heaped with canned food, bottled drinks and clothing.

People come in and take what they need. "If they need to come back in two or three days, then they come back," he said. "Of course, when we're done, whatever is left is the community's. We don't take it with us."

But Whitson's favorite feature of the warehouse was a tiny note, laden with 70 cents worth of change stuck to the paper with Scotch tape.

The note, Whitson said, is from a little boy named Paul, who wanted to give some of his money "to a little boy who didn't have any."

"When the right little boy comes along," Whitson said, "this is his."

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