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Reunion with a very bad day
04/09/09

Tomorrow is the 30th anniversary of the Wichita Falls tornado.

It’s funny to me how I can forget certain details about something that happened two days ago, but for that April 10th in 1979, I can remember the smallest of details. And the biggest.

To this day, I am all about storm chasing when the bad clouds roll in, and the conflicting emotions where I want a twister to touch down so I can capture its image, but at the same time praying it does so in an open field, well away from Iowa Park or any of the nearby towns.

All during that April day in 1979 I felt like something was going down. The way the moisture clouds worked themselves to the northeast, the initial calls of a tornado hitting Vernon, then Seymour.

Once I left work in downtown Wichita Falls and made my way to the house off of Barnett Road that I leased with Bubba Nolen and Mike Penn, the clouds to the west of town were dark and boiling. The air was still and static and unnatural.

Mike was already at home (around 5:10). We ran across the street and climbed onto the roof of a new home under construction. Fortunately, the builders had left a ladder. Unfortunately, I didn’t have a camera.

The scene that played before us was like the Wizard of Oz on steroids. Some five miles out and due west, a huge and beautiful funnel worked itself straight down to the ground in a matter of seconds.

As if on cue, twin funnels smaller in width snaked towards the ground, bookends to the mother funnel.

Less than a minute later, the three funnels joined as one, and the result was an unwordly apparition, now working its way towards town.

Here’s where I got stupid.

The house we were leasing was a well-built brick three bedroom castle. We should have gone into it, and found a safe place.

Instead, I quickly convinced myself the tornado was moving east northeast, directly towards us, and I didn’t want any part of it.

So ... Mike and I jumped into my pickup. We worked our way onto Burnett Road, driving south to Southwest Parkway.

When we made a left on Southwest Parkway Mike, speaking in tongues, informed me the tornado was hitting Memorial Stadium, a few blocks away.

I floored the truck all the way to Fairway, dodging cars that were blasting out of the side streets, most not stopping. When I saw the intersection at Fairway, my heart went up into my throat.

All lanes in all directions were eight and ten cars deep, with wrecks in the middle. Nothing was moving. If I joined that line, I probably wasn’t going to live, with the tornado breathing down our backs.

I jerked the truck into the big parking lot of Safeway and Osborne’s, and the wind was buffetting the truck so bad I could swear I was driving on two wheels.

I remember driving past a woman, pushing a cart full of groceries towards her car and a wild look in her eyes.

We managed to get onto Fairway and drive half a block when I spotted a ditch to the left. We dove out of the truck and climbed into the ditch and into a tin horn and with the sound of a thousand freight trains I thought my world was close to an end.

When the tornado blew by, we were what seemed to be yards from its edge, and I could see cars and debris big and small flying by.

It seemed an eternity before the tornado left and the sounds subsided. We crawled out of the tin horn, only to be greeted by huge “WHOMPS” as grapefruit-sized hail showered down from the sky.

When that sound abated, we crawled out once again, and the devastation just took our breath away. The truck amazingly was fine, except for some metal trim that had been ripped off. We couldn’t drive north on Fairway because of downed and shattered telephone poles, wrecked cars and other debris.

We instead drove south on Fairway and returned back north on Barnett, where we met several police officers, some of them cut and bleeding, that had taken shelter inside Memorial Stadium.

Beside us, the top floors of the Quail Creek apartments were obliterated, so Mike and I ran through the buildings, calling out for survivors.

We saw many injured, and some dead. With each, the feeling grew inside me how lucky I had been.

Sometime later, I drove to Iowa Park and into Mom’s arms. I don’t mind admitting I cried like a baby.

After finding out my four sisters were ok, including Kellie and her husband Mike who also lived in Wichita Falls at the time, I got back into the truck and drove back towards the ruined town.

The next days were something of a blur. No water. No electricity. No telephone service. National guardsmen patrolling the streets.

Some places you could be driving, and have no clue as to where you were, because all the landmarks had been blown away.

Oh yes. Now I remember. The very next day, the wind and dust was blowing like crazy. Bubba and Mike and myself worked with a crew that had bobtail trucks, helping families along Southwest Parkway to hunt for keepsakes or lost pets and anything of value to save.

Our home off of Barnett Road became Comedy Central, where friends bribed the guardsmen with six packs to pass into the neighborhood, and we burned many candles and drank many beers and listened to countless stories of survival and near misses and, unfortunately, stories of injuries and death of friends and acquaintances.

That event shaped many, many lives for sure. And today, I’ll chase a storm looking for the same precursor of destruction. I just pray harder that it stays put in an open field.



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