Waco Marks 50th Anniversary of Deadliest Twister in Texas

On a hot, humid afternoon in May 1953, Ted Lucenay took a break from his job and walked across the street to get a newspaper. Despite looming thunderstorms, an article read, a tornado (search) would never hit Waco because it was shielded by hills.

At that moment, a funnel cloud touched down a few miles away and began churning toward the town.

Just as he returned to the office, the doctor's assistant was buried by bricks and boards. Trapped for three hours, he struggled to breathe and wondered if he'd ever see his three young children and pregnant wife again.

His colleague, a nurse in her 50s, was hit by a desk.

"I could not see her -- we talked through the wall -- but I heard her until she took her dying breath," said Lucenay, now 78. "The Lord blessed me for a reason. I'm still here."

That twister was the deadliest ever to hit Texas, killing 114 people and injuring nearly 600. Only nine tornadoes in U.S. history have killed more people -- none since a June 1953 storm in Flint, Mich.

The lower death tolls from more recent storms -- such as last week's series of tornadoes in the Midwest (search) and South that killed 40 people -- may be attributed to better forecasting tools and sturdier buildings, experts say.

On May 11, 1953, the weather service in New Orleans issued a severe weather bulletin via teletype to newspapers and broadcasters, warning of storms from Wichita Falls to Waco to San Angelo -- where another tornado killed 13 people a few hours earlier.

"A lot of the components of the warning system that we take for granted today had not been developed or were just getting started in the early '50s," said Gary Woodall, a meteorologist in the National Weather Service (search) in Fort Worth.

The Waco tornado was rated an F-5, which means winds reached 260 mph. But lesser winds could have caused the devastation because in that era, external walls were load-bearing, and a building's floors would collapse if one wall failed, Woodall said.

The Waco tornado caused more than $50 million in damage in its 23-mile path, up to a third of a mile wide.

Mounds of bricks covered downtown streets and buried dozens of cars, some with people inside. Water tanks that had been atop buildings had plunged to the ground or into basements.

The five-story R.T. Dennis furniture store, a Waco landmark, became a two-story pile of debris and a tomb for 22 people. Seventeen others who had been playing billiards and dominoes died in a nearby recreation center.

Five people who had been sipping coffee at Chris's Cafe were crushed to death. The ceiling collapsed at the theater next door, but the 100 people inside got out alive.

Car horns, smashed by bricks, blared as men in hats and women in skirts and high-heel shoes began to emerge from damaged buildings.

"People were walking like zombies," said Wilton Lanning Jr., 66, who had been working at Padgitt's, his father's camera and sporting goods shop, and narrowly escaped injury.

Hearing cries for help, people dodged dangling wires and began digging barehanded through the rubble. Some men climbed atop 12-foot-tall mounds, throwing bricks and concrete chunks into the back of pickup trucks. Others brought their tractors, and large cranes arrived to remove debris.

Policemen, soldiers and volunteers carried body bags to ambulances and cars. Churches became makeshift morgues as the death toll rose over the next four days.

The poignant images can be seen on a black-and-white film shot by Whayne Farmer Jr., a World War II Army photographer who worked at Padgitt's.

His 12-minute film, believed to be the only footage of the initial aftermath, was to be shown for the first time this weekend at a ceremony marking the tornado's anniversary. The film wasn't found until after Farmer's death several years ago.

Local officials also are planning a 6-foot, tear-shaped black marble statue listing names of the victims and a Lord Byron quote: "Adversity is the path to truth." The sculpture is to be finished later this year and placed downtown.

The city once had more than 250 factories -- making everything from cotton goods to caskets -- and was the state's sixth-largest industrial center. But after the tornado, about 400 buildings were torn down, leaving gaping pockets of vacant land throughout the business district.

Some shops closed forever, including the Dennis furniture store, whose owners died in the tornado. Some reopened in other parts of town as Waco struggled to recover.

"It just seemed like the whole town worked to build Waco back and make it together," said Jack Jeffrey, 81, who had been city manager three months when the tornado hit.

But Waco, which also suffered the loss of an Air Force base in 1966, has grown much more slowly than other Central Texas cities. From a population of 84,300 in the early 1950s, it has grown to about 114,000.

Waco began renovating its urban area through federal grants and focused on tourist attractions, including a zoo, the Texas Ranger Museum and Texas Sports Hall of Fame. Baylor University is a major employer.

A few vast parking lots remain downtown, but other empty spaces have been filled with hotels, a convention center and park.

"Out of a tragic event came a determination to build and to do better," said Lanning, now Padgitt's CEO. "A sleepy little town on May 11, 1953, has steadily grown, going forward with determination and vision, and is doing quite well."