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Terrible Tuesday Memories Will Never Go Away

Photo: Russell Jennings

Thirty four years ago today, the lives of thousands of people in Wichita Falls were forever changed.  I was 8 years old and the full magnitude of what happened that day didn’t register with me until a few years later.  But even those of us who were not directly in the path of the killer tornado would be changed.

Most of what I remember about that day prior to the tornado is that everyone seemed on edge; they knew something wasn’t right.  I remember my mother commenting about how strange the air felt that day.  Spring break was underway.  Easter was coming up.  The weather was the last thing on an 8 year-old’s mind.  But looking back, something truly did not feel right that day.  By 6 pm, those strange feelings would turn to outright fear.

We were at my grandmother’s house that afternoon.  My grandmother, born in 1898, was not in good health and was actually in bed early that evening.  My mother was making dinner.  I was sitting in the living room watching TV.  Back in those days, we had no video games to play.  We’d spent most of the day playing outside, of course.  There was no cable television in Wichita Falls and the word satellite was not even part of our vocabulary yet, so we were tuned to one of the two local stations.  My mother had just switched over grandmas old Philco 25” black & white console to KFDX TV 3 to catch the news.  Bill Warren was the “weatherman” and I can still hear his words: ‘The sirens are sounding now in Wichita Falls…”.  Suddenly, the lights went out.

In what seemed like a flash, we were in our 1964 Chevy Bel Air and headed down the block to my uncles home.  He was the only one on that block with a cellar.  As the adults scrambled to get my grandmother and my uncle’s mother-in-law into the cellar (she was wheelchair bound), my aunt was talking to a neighbor who happened to have some binoculars with him.  They could see debris in the air at that point and within a minute or two, we, along with at least a couple dozen neighbors, were in the cellar.

My most vivid memories are the sound of hail hitting the cellar door, sitting in that cramped cellar, my uncle and cousin holing a rope tied to the door handle-just in case-and the candles that illuminated the underground room.  I was scared, hot, sweaty and I’m sure I was crying, but I was safe.  We all were.  Our houses escaped the tornado.  We were north of the path.  But we emerged to a dark world.  No street lights, the sounds of emergency vehicle sirens in the distance and people wondering just what had happened.  For thousands of people, life had forever changed in a matter of minutes.

We were far enough away from the carnage of that mile-wide demon that we could not know just how bad it was, except for the reports coming from the radio on what was then KTRN 1290 AM, the only station in town able to stay on-air after the storm.  All of the power in town was taken out.  KTRN had a generator and was able to broadcast.  Again, the full impact of what was being said did not fully register to an 8 year old.  But the tears of the adults around me, the tone of their voices and the anxiousness of the hours afterward were enough to convince me that whatever had happened was very, very bad.

We spent that night with relatives.  Everyone wanted to be together.  We still had family we couldn’t contact.  The phones were dead.  I don’t recall sleeping all that much that night.  I don’t think any of us did.  Someone came around and told us not to drink the water.  Since the treatment plant was down, it wasn’t safe to drink unless you boiled it first.  The next day, we tried to venture out to see what had happened.  Obviously, there were places you could not get to, but what we could see was bad enough.  One of my uncles described it as Hiroshima after the bomb.  It seemed like forever before the lights came back on, but when they did, cheers erupted in the house.

We lost friends and acquaintances that day.  Friends lost homes and businesses.  Fortunately, none of our family members were killed.  Many others were not so fortunate.  For several years after, every time a storm came up, we were in the cellar, afraid that Terrible Tuesday might return.  The years have dimmed some memories and have healed the wounds of some, but for others, the loss and destruction of that day has never faded.  To this day, there are a few visible signs of that day that remain: subtle differences in some of the brick on Sikes Senter Mall, a slab or two in Faith Village, I even met a guy a few years ago who still had a piece of a two-by-four from his home that was obliterated by the storm.  And I still catch myself, every time there’s an April storm, looking to the southwest and wondering: will it happen again?

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