Alternate History

Lawrence, Kansas (1983: Doomsday)

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The first of several thermonuclear bombs to hit the Kansas City area on Doomsday evening. This picture was taken right after impact by a student traveling on Kansas Highway 10 going west towards Lawrence, just past the DeSoto exit.

Excerpts from a Scottsbluff Star-Herald article dated August 25, 1996:

Lawrence, Kansas, was one of the largest cities in the former state of Kansas, 25 miles east of Topeka and 41 miles west of Kansas City, Missouri. It was the home to the University of Kansas and Haskell Indian Nations University. Lawrence took severe damage on September 26, 1983 - the day now known as "Doomsday" - from the Kansas City and Topeka blasts; radiation, disease and starvation killed off most of the populace and refugees from outlying areas.

The hundreds of people who survived into summer of 1984 were discovered after a ham radio operator at the university contacted a radio operator in Scottsbluff. They were told that people had survived in western Nebraska, and instructed on how to get to the town; Scottsbluff medical personnel and law enforcement would meet them halfway, at the Kansas-Nebraska border.

The vote was unanimous to abandon Lawrence and head for Scottsbluff. Nearly 200 of the 936 people who began the trek died during it.

One of the survivors was Karen Hargreaves, a nursing student at the University of Kansas in September 1983. She was interviewed by the Star-Herald in 1986. Hargreaves died yesterday at the Medical Center from leukemia; she was 33 years old.

Karen Hargreaves (KH): ...we were watching the Emmy Awards on TV. Well, everyone else was, I was studying for a quiz. Amy (a fellow nursing student) shouted 'Oh my god' and that got my attention. The newscaster was...frightened. Said something about missiles headed for New York and Washington. Then the picture, I don't know, melted away? And the screen went dark.

Then, you heard the loudest BOOM, the loudest explosion you will ever, ever hear...the room shook, and...and we thought a plane might have hit the campus. I ran outside with Amy and the other students in my dorm, and...we saw the sky lit like at sundown, and the mushroom clouds sihouetted against the sky'....I have never seen a more frightening thing in my life...

(Hargreaves broke down and began to cry. The interviewer handed her a handkerchief, and waited as she composed herself. A few minutes later, she continued.)

I'm sorry, it's just so....if you want to know what hell looks like, I saw it in those bombs. If you want to know what living in hell is like....Lawrence was hell. I'm amazed we survived.

(Hargreaves on the masses of refugees pouring into Lawrence and KU that week)

KH: The people poured in, and they poured in, and more and more kept showing up. A lot of people ended up near the river, because the mayor was looking for places to put them. A lot went to the fairgrounds, to the park, some in the local high schools, and a lot of them here on campus.

...everyone was recruited, including nursing students, as medical personnel. I know that the head of the school of medicine, and the chief of the medical center were coordinating with the people at Memorial Hospital. We did our best but we got overwhelmed, and there wasn't enough medicine to help simply got overwhelmed. We tried, and we tried, to keep up with everyone. We ran out of the expensive medicines, then we ran out of morphine, and then we ran out of aspirin.

They set up the basketball arena as a makeshift mor--a makeshift emergency room. Just about everyone there was sick, or injured, and...There were cots laid out on the floor, in the stands, in the concourses. We were going up and down the stairs all the time trying to help people. Sometimes all you could do is hold their hand, give them a hug. I saw other nurses and students with masks on, afraid to touch people. I figured that we were all going to die, though I tried to push it out of my mind, so why not hug someone and give them whatever comfort you could give them? We did that more and more, especially as the medicine ran out. Coach Brown and some of his players helped us, and helped the rest of their teammates who got sicker and sicker. He made it out the next summer with us.

...the people kept coming in, from all directions, those first few weeks. The military set up I think at the fairgrounds, it may have been Prairie Park. I know things got worse, although I rarely left campus and the field house. You would hear things, about police fighting looters, rioters in the park, military shooting police, then shooting looters and troublemakers. They ended up all killing each other, if you hadn't heard.... got to where people were dying of diseases that before you could have simply cured. Like meningitis. The radiation got a whole lot of us, that and the diseases they came down with were too much for a lot of people to handle.

Something else was the lack of food. There were fights all over town over food, and I remember one afternoon the football team and other athletes ganging up on the, I think, journalism students? Or was it science?....over food. Gunshots were fired. They were geeks, but whoever they were, they took down half the football team. We travelled here, with some of those guys. I mean, the geeks. I felt safe. They knew how to take care of themselves, and us.

(Hargreaves on how the initial estimated population of 85,000 in the Lawrence area dwindled down to a mere few hundred)

KH: Most people died, I would guess, of a combination of radiation poisoning and disease, or of disease and lack of food, or of all three. They died fairly quickly, too.

One day that fall, who knows what month it was, I reported for my shift at the field house. Coach Brown was staring at the statue outside the field house, saw me, looked at me and said 'they're shutting down the field house.' I said 'what about the people?' Coach Brown said 'there's nobody left alive, honey. They're burying all those people today and tomorrow.' They buried them in the football field, and some of them in Prairie Park. People took paint and wooden boards and made tombstones for them if they had identification.

(Hargreaves on the November violence that resulted in an estimated 20,000 deaths)

KH: Things got worse, and worse. The surviving nurses like myself and the few doctors left were under constant guard. I don't know how we all were able to eat at all; maybe so many dying of sickness. But somebody decided they had to have all the food, so one gang, I'm not sure, but one group shot at another group and next thing you know, you're hearing gunfire all over the place. And shouts, and screaming. You knew that people were getting killed out there. Women, children, screaming...we stood in the entrance of a building, in shock, as people were getting gunned down while other people were fighting each other with their fists, or knives, or pipes. We watched it for a half-hour, waiting for somebody to come shoot us.

Somebody came, but it was our military guards, Privates McLellan and Conder. They had us run for the radio room, as we called it, and once we got there they told us to lie down on the floor and keep as quiet as we could. We heard gunshots getting closer and closer, and then people shot into the room.

Privates McLellan and Conder saved our lives...they kept firing and firing and, somehow, they stayed alive. We heard more gunfire, and it went on into the night...after forever it finally stopped. McLellan looked outside, Conder joined him and motioned for us to follow them. I looked out and it was dark but I still saw....bodies, all over the place. My God....I can remember it all, remember the smell, to this day....

....McLellan had me and Norena jump in a Jeep, with our first aid kits. We drove all over campus, and it was more of the same. Bodies everywhere. You'd see a few people here and there. We drove into town, we drove up the turnpike, over the bridge, back the other way, down to the park. We only saw a few people and he told them to get to KU however they could. I saw them later that day, with everyone else in the library. McLellan did a head count of everyone and counted 936. They went out later to find more people; he came back and said 'this is it.' We asked him what he meant. He said 'this is all the people there are left alive here in Lawrence.'

(Hargreaves on the decision to leave Lawrence):

KH: I remember it was July, and we barely had enough food left until August. People were trying to grow food but it just wasn't working. One of the guys I saw taking on the athletes that day was operating a radio, and tried every day to get someone. He never did until the day before we left...he spoke to someone here, and found out from them that Scottsbluff had survived and was in a position to take refugees. He told them about us, and the guy came back with I think it was the mayor, and the mayor told us how to get to Scottsbluff. Dr. Jung, who was sick, and Professor Williams said we were on our way. Some people wanted to take a vote. Everybody voted to leave in a show of hands. There was nothing for us in Lawrence. Nothing.

....we went up, on foot, on horse and on the few military vehicles that still had gas. We went past Manhattan, which was abandoned but somebody had left instructions on how to get to took us 14 days to get to where we were supposed to meet them, in Superior, along the border. And we had to travel in the early morning and late evenings, and rest during the biggest part of the day because it was so damn hot that year. We lost 100 some people getting to the border....

We finally got to Superior, on the other side in Nebraska, and saw a bunch of military trucks waiting for us. I never felt so overwhelmed with joy. I broke down, weeping....(she pauses, and wipes some tears with her handkerchief)...all I felt was joy. In that godforsaken part of the world, all the bombs went off, everything we knew was gone, and I felt joy because for the first time in months I felt hope.

A nurse and a soldier picked me up and gently led me into one of the trucks...she wiped my tears, asked me how I was doing, and if I needed anything. I said no, I was fine. She said to stay there and rest, we'll be going home soon...they filled everyone up in the trucks, and we took off. We saw our first people other than them, and anyone from Lawrence, in Hastings. We drove up the interstate through Kearney, North Platte, Ogallala, Sidney, then turned into Kimball, where they stopped for the night and fed us at the local high school. The next morning they drove us up into Scottsbluff, and took us to the shelter.

Postscript: Northeastern Kansas, along with adjacent Kansas CIty, Missouri, was impacted with multiple nuclear strikes the evening of September 25. Survivors were known by the Scottsbluff provisional government to have congregated in Lawrence, Manhattan (specifically Kansas State University) and (later on) in Dodge City. The 736 survivors from Lawrence and 2,738 from Manhattan and other northeastern Kansas communities were routed to Scottsbluff, as contact was not made with Dodge City until 1987, and even later in other parts of the state. Of the total of 3,474 refugees, 482, including Karen Hargreaves, have died of various diseases all believed to be somehow related to their exposure to radiation in the weeks and months after September 25, 1983. A joint expedition by the provisional governments of Kansas and Nebraska was made in 1994 to northeastern Kansas. No life, nor signs of any life in the past 10 years, was found in either town.--Editor

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