Forty years ago, 16 people died in Pomona Lake after a twister capsized the Whippoorwill paddle boat — the worst water disaster in Kansas history.
The wreck drew national attention to the recreation site 80 miles southwest of Kansas City. It happened more than a decade before the showboat's current owners, brothers Josh and Matt Abramovitz, were born.
Still, the siblings have dreams of getting the 45-ton craft out on Perry Lake — about 55 miles northeast of Pomona Lake — by the Fourth of July for outings with their family. In time, the Abramovitzes would like to welcome paying passengers onto the old Whippoorwill for pleasure cruises.
Given the boat's grim history, would rides on Perry's party cove draw customers?
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"A lot of people I've talked to say it would be pretty awesome," said Matt Abramovitz, 26.
Older brother Josh, 28, says the boat's close to seaworthy again after decades of repairs and cosmetic renovations by his family and three previous owners.
The Whippoorwill indeed appears to be in decent shape for a craft made of steel flipped by a tornado on June 17, 1978. Today it has a wood-paneled downstairs cabin with a kitchenette and small home-entertainment corner (sporting a cassette-tape player).
The family is painting the boat's exterior red, white and blue. Really, to an amateur's eye, there are few signs that a disaster ever occurred.
Removed is the covered upper deck where many of the revelers that Saturday night flew into waters 25 feet deep, then were crushed by that deck's canopy.
Except for a palm-sized dent on the side of its hull, nobody today would suspect she ever met a tornado.
'A very heartbreaking thing'
Ben Streeter managed Pomona State Park in the 1970s and saw the funnel whip into life. Starting on land near the lake, the tornado would travel 8 miles.
Streeter's reaction: What? The National Weather Service hadn't issued a tornado alert for anywhere near Osage County.
"The sun was shining where I was standing" near the lake, he recalled, noting that weather forecasting 40 years ago lacked the technology of today.
He phoned the sheriff, but disaster may already have struck.
Around 7 p.m., away from his view, the narrow twister upended the Whippoorwill with its 58 passengers and crew.
Local actors on the showboat were preparing for a performance of the musical "Dames at Sea" in the lower-deck cabin. Most of the 16 fatalities are thought to have been persons thrown from the open-air upper deck.
Other boaters on the lake rushed to the aid of survivors. Many jumped in to rescue Whippoorwill patrons who found air pockets below deck.
Morning brought frantic relatives to Pomona Lake needing answers.
"You're talking to people who still haven't found their loved ones," Streeter said. "Were they in the hospital? Were they in the morgue? Or were they still out there in the lake?
"It was a very heartbreaking thing."
Half of the dead were from Topeka. They included Judy Patterson, 25, whose unborn child — eight months in the womb — was later declared the 16th fatality.
"This incident," concluded a report of the National Weather Service, "shows that all tornadoes, no matter how small or short-lived, demand our respect."
Saved from scrap
An Edwardsville man who acquired the Whippoorwill many years ago sold the boat to the Abramovitz brothers for $4,000.
That's the price a salvage company offered to scrap the 65-foot-long vessel.
"We couldn't let that happen," Josh Abramovitz said.
The brothers bought the boat after a string of caretakers had restored it as a paddle-churning houseboat. One former owner, Lawrence Stadel, ran Pomona Lake's marina and was among those who dove to rescue the Whippoorwill's survivors.
At one point renamed the Georgia Mae, the boat developed pinholes in its hull from tiny fires sparked by faulty wiring.
Beavers chewed at arms that cranked the paddle wheel. But those repairs and a paint job, Josh said, have brought the boat close to plowing Perry Lake — if not yet allowed to carry paying passengers.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers doubts that would happen soon.
"We wouldn't flat-out say, 'No, you can't do that,'" said R.J. Harms, project manager for the Army Corps' operations on Perry Lake. "But we'd have a lot of requirements they'd first have to go through" before the Abramovitzes make their flat-bottom boat a commercial enterprise.
With major work already invested and much more needed, the brothers "may be in over their heads," said Brian Best, manager of Perry Lake Yacht and Marina.
"Yes," Josh Abramovitz confirmed.
But it's a solid, die-hard boat. Built in 1965 by the Missouri Valley Steel Co. in Leavenworth, it's been out on the water numerous times since the tragedy.
The satisfaction of fixing the Whippoorwill is like "what you feel seeing a car from the '60s going down the road, or a steam locomotive coming down the tracks," Josh Abramovitz said. "You go, 'Yeah ... a piece of history still alive.'"
It's not about the lives lost in 1978.
The brothers' mother, Lisa Abramovitz, was 13 back then.
"If there are ghosts around here," she recently said while sprucing up the cabin, "they're nice ghosts."
Few have told the family that the boat's horrible history would keep them from boarding. Still, the Abramovitz brothers debate whether it's proper to keep the Whippoorwill name or give her a new identity.
"We might name it something else," Josh said, "but everyone will still call it the ol' Whippoorwill."