Tuesday, April 10, 2007

"Terrible Tuesday" 28 years later

For folks in Wichita Falls, April 10 is a special date. In 1979, April 10 fell on a Tuesday, and that day came to be called "Terrible Tuesday." That was the day that Wichita Falls was struck by one of (if not the) largest tornadoes ever recorded. For all kinds of information, photos, and videos on what happened that day in Wichita Falls and the surrounding area, go to this website.

Shortly before 6:00 p.m., three separate funnels formed on the southwest edge of the city.

And then they joined to make one monster vortex.

I discuss some of the damage below, but for now here are some pictures:

Here's some trivia about the force of the tornado. Canceled checks from Wichita Falls were found in Oklahoma City. A golf driving range was in the direct path of the storm. The range had a large (about 20 ft. in diameter) ball about 150 yards down range with holes in it. Anyone hitting a shot in the holes would win various prizes. Anyway, the tornado swept up that large ball, and when it came to rest, it was approximately 20 miles from its original location.

As a result of the tornado, our local newspaper was not able to publish the following day, and the Dallas Morning News put out a special Wichita Falls edition. Ten years after Terrible Tuesday, I was living in Dallas (and about to move to Austin), and the Dallas Morning News published a special commemorative section about the tornado and what had happened since. That action prompted me to write a letter to the editor which was then published as a guest editorial on April 23, 1989.

After high school, I could not wait to get out of Wichita Falls. And then after staying away for basically 20 years, I moved back and found that many others I knew in high school had done the same. When people ask me (usually in semi-shocked tones) why I freely chose to move from Dallas to Wichita Falls, my standard answer is "It's nice to live in a city that doesn't even have traffic reports on the radio." What I wrote 18 years ago gives some more explanation--and it is still true today.
As a former resident of Wichita Falls and a person whose family still lives there, I want to thank you for the features you ran in the April 9 paper regarding the 10th anniversary of the Wichita Falls tornado. I had been discussing the tornado with several of my Dallas friends. I spoke of the statistical aspects of the storm. However, I said nothing about my personal feelings and memories. Reading the articles in your paper about "Terrible Tuesday" made me want to share some of those memories.

As with most Wichitans who were in the city on April 10, 1979, never an April passes that I do not recall the events of that day and the weeks that followed. My first thoughts are usually about how lucky I was. The tornado did not go through my part of town. Just minutes before the storm hit, a friend of mine and I had been at a shopping mall that was in the direct path of the storm. Only a twist of fate caused us to go home rather than be caught in the impending destruction. Although I came through the tornado unharmed, several of my friends were not so fortunate. Helping them clean up was an experience I will never forget. Mere words cannot convey the extent of the devastation. What had once been neat neighborhoods were bizarre, twisted testaments to nature's fury. One of the officers of the German air force unit stationed at Sheppard Air Force Base commented to my parents that he had witnessed the aftermath of the bombing of Dresden in World War II, and that Wichita Falls looked worse than did Dresden.

The shock and the sight of all the damage will remain with me always. Even so, my most significant memories do not concern such frightening matters, but rather the strength of the human spirit. One would think that in the midst of all the carnage there would have been a sense of despair and hopelessness. However, in front of several wrecked homes signs had been erected that indicated Wichitans were taking a different approach. The signs proclaimed things like "Now Showing: Gone With the Wind," and "Split-level house for sale," and my personal favorite, "Who says the Bakers don't throw wild parties?" Here were people whose lives had literally been blown apart, and yet they could still laugh.

The signs were just indicative of the attitude of the entire city. There was some grief, but it did not consume people. Not once did anyone say, "This is so unfair. Why did this have to happen?" No one complained or wallowed in pity. There was a feeling of gladness just to be alive, and the prevailing spirit was one of hope and an eagerness to pick up the pieces and start over. There was such a strong state of community where everyone was willing to lend a hand.

I hope that my memories will give folks some idea of why Wichita Falls survived and thrived after the tornado and why it is (and has been) a unique city. "The Falls" might not seem like the most glamorous place in the world, but it has something no other place has -- namely, the people who live there. In addition to being courageous, Wichitans care about their city, and they care about people. For me, it has taken leaving Wichita Falls to realize how wonderful that sense of caring and community really is. I am soon moving even farther from Wichita Falls, but I know that regardless of where I live, there is at least one place I can truly call "home." That place is Wichita Falls, and, to me anyway, that makes it a mighty special place.
Wichita Falls is one of those places that does not change much over the years. In some ways that can be frustrating, but in other ways, that is a good thing. Like I said, the qualities I described 18 years ago have not changed, and that is very good thing indeed.


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