HEROISM OF TELEPHONE GIRLS
FEMININE NATURE RESPONDS TO CALL 0F DUTY—NOT EVEN DAUNTED BY OMAHA TORNADO—EXCHANGE A HOSPITAL AND MILITARY HEADQUARTERS.
The switchboard in front of them dabbled with cold blood from their cut hands, one girl with a badly sprained arm, another with a gash across her face and others with bad injuries, sixteen "central" girls at the Webster Telephone exchange of Omaha stuck to their posts all night and well into the next day following the terrible storm of Easter Sunday. Others at home, knowing the wild rush of telephoning that would follow, hurried to their stations. Many of the girls, whose folks lived near the exchange, worked loyally to apprise the rest of the city of the extent of the tornado, with fear in their hearts that their own dear ones had been killed or were dying.
Because it was Sunday and a part holiday, only sixteen girls of the regular force of over thirty were at work when the tornado struck. Every window in the building was blown in, the light globes over their heads were shattered and the little signal globes on the board in front of them were broken into sharp splinters that tortured their fingers.
With the bursting of the windows the girls with one accord fled to the basement. Several were blown from their high stools. All of them were in the shower of sharp glass from the broken windows.
The worst roar past, they returned to their stations, knowing the need of "central" by those whose relatives lived in that part of town. Miss Etta Larson, 332 South Twentieth, was in charge. "Every girl went back to her post," she said, "and soon the others came in. We were all needed. People were just wild in trying to find whether their folks were still alive." The telephone is the community "nervous system."
Tragedy followed tragedy, all silently but significantly told, as the girls tried to reach the homes of those in the stricken district. A number would be called— someone desperately trying to reach the home of a dear one, member of the family or a close relative. Central would ring the number. No one would answer. The number would be tried again. Then again and again until the one waiting would be told, "They don’t answer."
"Oh, it was awful !" said Vesta Shirley, one of the central girls. "One woman begged me to keep on trying, even after I had tried the number a dozen times. ‘My little baby girl was visiting there,’ she said, ‘can’t you try them again? I was talking to them just not long ago.’ Others were just like that. Some of the girls couldn’t reach their own folks, and worked all night and part of the next day. Several of them were injured. That, added to the strain of anxiety, must have made it awful, but not a one of them said a word."
Miss Shirley, who lives at 3520 North Twenty-seventh, had a bad gash cut in her right arm by flying glass, but she worked all Sunday night and until nearly noon Monday, using her left hand.
Miss Addie Elliott, 4110 North Seventeenth street, was gashed across the cheek by a shattered window pane. With the blood running from the cut all over her clothes and spattering the board in front of her, she worked along with the others in answering the calls of terrified people. "It wasn’t a time to quit for a little thing like that," she said. "Everybody was overworked and I just couldn’t stop and leave all those scared people to stay in doubt."
Miss Grace Chipman, 1505 Ogden, was on the last board at the south end of the room when the storm struck. She was hurled from her seat to the floor and her right arm badly sprained. Despite the pain, she worked without relief until the next morning, when a doctor called at the exchange building and cared for her injury. "It hurt some," she said, "but my! What could I do? My place was at that board answering those poor people, and I just stayed."
For nearly three hours the exchange room was turned into a temporary hospital and morgue. In one corner, side by side, laid three people, two men and a woman, dead from being caught under a falling building. Over a dozen injured people, many of them with serious cuts, were taken care of in the room where the girls were working. The blood from their cuts ran down the cracks in the floor and formed little puddles where the girls were forced to walk. The dark stains may be seen in the floor for many days afterward.
Other telephone operators, off duty, knew there would be a rush of calls and made their way through the debris to work. One woman, who had not been on duty at a switchboard for two years, left her 6-weeks-old baby with her parents and hurried to the exchange, working along with the others until nearly noon the next day. Most of the girls did not wait for cabs to take them to the exchange, but made their way through the storm and over the debris.
One girl was struck by a board that fell from the top of a house. She was badly bruised, but kept on her way, reported for duty and went to work.
The girl’s rest room in the Webster exchange has been converted into a barracks for the soldiers. The men who are guarding the property of the storm victims were placed there early Monday morning.
The Nebraska Telephone company cared for the girls whose homes were destroyed and who lost their personal property. Food, shelter and clothing were provided. The families of a number of the girls lived in the ruined district and the help of the company was deeply welcomed.
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