It will be forever known as 'Terrible Tuesday'--on Tuesday, April 10th, 1979, a massive tornado ripped through Wichita Falls, claiming 42 lives.
The tornado stayed on the ground for 47 miles and tore through four counties, forever changing the lives of all who survived it. Thirty-one years later, memories of that day are still seared in their minds.
"The day just felt eerie. It was just different you knew something was going on," Mike Campbell, a survivor, said.
It was a Tuesday and spring break for kids in the Wichita Falls I.S.D., including a deserved break for Rider High School Ag teacher, Mike Campbell.
"We lived on Cypress Street just south of Southwest Parkway. My wife and I were working in the yard. We had spent the day cleaning the gutters around the curb. We had plated 5 fruit trees that day and edged and was doing yard work, but it was memorable of course because of, of course what happened," Campbell said. "We first started hearing reports of tornados in Vernon, and while I visited with a neighbor across the fence we talked about if were still here tomorrow lets go in and by a cellar."
But shortly after, while watching the news and hearing the danger was headed straight for the falls, Campbell began to think it was time to head to shelter, but stresses he still didn't realizing the true danger his family was already in. Campbell said, "...heard the siren and made the decision to take our 18-month-old daughter and the dog and jumped in the pick-up and thought 'We need to go out to my parent's house because they have a cellar.' So as we are backing out of the driveway--that's when we saw it. As we are backing out of the driveway, we're looking to the west and all you can really see at that point is solid black. My thought was 'This is a really bad thunderhead'...looked like a northern ...You've seen a thousand and it's a solid color...Really not realizing yet what was going on. In '79 CB radios were popular. We had it on and someone came on and said, 'Take cover now, there is a tornado sitting on Memorial Stadium.'"
"My wife begged me to go back in, but I didn't really feel that was the right thing to do so we traveled down Cypress to Southwest Parkway and turned right, headed east on Southwest Parkway...as we are traveling--we had cleaned out the gutters so there was mud in the pickup--we had a brand new F-150 with 460 engine. I thought, you know, 'We can outrun this thing,' is what I'm thinking, but, you know, you're just so scared. I was so frightened that I put my foot all the way to the floor. You grab hold and give it all you've got, and I asked Trisha, 'Which way is it going?' and she said, 'It's not moving,' so that's a pretty good sign it's right behind you. It felt like we were only doing 30 miles an hour," Campbell said.
And Campbell said looking back in that rearview mirror only made it worse.
"Pure fear," Campbell said. "I mean, I have never been so scared in my complete and entire life. But again you have got to stay calm and try to take care of business. I--what I was doing, was thinking of, I had always heard that you drive at right angles to tornadoes. So I was looking at a road that we had distance. I knew we shouldn't turn into several of those roads because they were the lake and would be a dead end. So I waited till we got to a road that we
could turn right on and knew there would be some mileage that we could put between us and the tornado."
"As we traveled down Southwest Parkway, people were still stopping at red lights at that point. We weren't one of them. We went out to Lake Road, which I think was K-Mart at that time, turned right on Lake Road, went out to our school farm, and that's when we could really see what was going on behind us. When you turned right, you could look back at that point," Campbell said. "Really didn't slow down, until we got to turned right on Archer City Highway and at that point there was a crowd gathered on that road just past the state hospital, that were looking back and you could see very clearly what was going on at that point. I would have given you a dime for every living soul in town because I just knew there would be thousands killed at that point."
Campbell and his family drove on to his parents' in Clay County, where they finally let out a sigh of relief.
Campbell said, "Now, hindsight probably wouldn't do it again."
"The next day, my dad and I started gathering up boxes to bring back cause I'm thinking, 'We need to go back and check on the place and see what we can find.' I gathered up three boxes, and he said, 'Are you sure that will be enough?' And I said, 'Based on what I saw, I'm sure that will be more than enough.' But he and I and my wife, we came back to Wichita Falls. We came in through Henrietta down Southwest Parkway, and it's the eeriest, strangest feeling when you come over that overpass where what is Sutherland's now, and there is just nothing there. It was a huge crowd. There was only one line of traffic open; they had cleared one lane, and it took us close to two hours to get from where Sutherland's is now to our house which is on Cypress Street," Campbell said. "The only way we knew it was Cypress, was because it was the widest street, and you could see Rider on your right and Fowler on your left, and we knew we were somewhere in between those two buildings so we turned left and finally got to our house and basically we just saw walls, roof was gone. We found a saddle in our backyard-- we don't have a horse. Found a boat in our front yard. Our T.V. was out in our front yard. All of Jana's clothes were out in a tree--what was left of a tree--in the front. It was just one of those things that I found a camera and took pics of what we saw around that time as well."
But Campbell said it wasn't all a loss. He actually ended up with a cattle trailer full of stuff. A recliner, a working T.V., washer, dryer, dishes, wedding pictures and keepsakes, but not everyone was as fortunate.
"I know my neighbor across the street had moved here from England. They were there during the war, and she said even the bombing of London was nothing compared to the devastation she saw in her neighborhood," Campbell said. "It was just one of those things that you are very grateful to be alive. But when you stand there and look at that loss, you realize what's really, really important. And it's what's standing there looking at that lot."
"It was just bricks. You think of a house and you think of a house as your home and it's so important to you but it's just lumber and bricks. It's nothing. What matters is the relationships and the life that we live and the trust we have in each other," Campbell said, leading the rider Ag teacher to also worry and wonder about his students.
"Of course, it happened on a Tuesday; it was the middle of spring break. Monday, we were scheduled to go back to school, and we got word that we were going to have school. Now I'm looking around at the Ag building and windows blown out of the school, and the guys, they did a great job getting it fixed. They did the best they could, considering all that had to be done. To this day, we came back that Monday and--talk about a reunion. Talk about hugs, we were happy to see each other. But the only reason I believe they called school back so early was to check role. Because they were still looking for bodies they were still looking for people. So that's one way to find out. If the kids came back to school that was one way to check them off and say, 'Yea, they're okay.'"
Unfortunately, that also allowed them to realize those who were gone.
Campbell said, "We did lose some students. We lost one of our Ag students as a result of the tornado, so it makes you appreciate life and what you've got."
The fateful day also lead to a new city motto: "Coming back strong and fast." And many worked hard to do just that, although Mike says it took many years for the town to look like Wichita Falls again. He was able to rebuild and move back into his home that thanksgiving, but even though more than 30 years have passed, there will always be the reminders.
"That day, Trish had made a cherry cream pie, it WAS my favorite thing of all time, and it was left on the counter. When we left the house we grabbed Jana, the dog, and a diaper--that's what we left with. We came back, the cherry cream pie was still sitting on the counter. It was a little gritty but tasted pretty good. Actually, Trish has not made a cherry cream pie since that day. Has not made one, since every time we see one we think of that Terrible Tuesday April 10th, 1979."
Another permanent reminder comes on the first Monday of every month, Campbell said, "When they blow those sirens to test, I still get chill bumps, and it still reminds me of that sound when we had to jump in the pick-up and run."
Sikes Senter Mall brings another haunting memory for many, including the different colors of brick on the Dillards Building where the tornado hit, but it also brings a reminder of how to stay prepared.
Campbell said, "Hindsight, we did go back. We had talked to the neighbor about going in and buying a cellar. Well, we bought one. They delivered the lumber for the house one day and the cellar the next. So we have a cellar."
Also at Rider High School in '79 was Robert Driver. "I had always grown up hearing about the tornado out at the base, and, you know, tornado watch and warnings and you always think, you know, 'It won't happen to me,' and especially one of this magnitude. It's always someone else's house that gets blown away, and you get to go help them. It's never your house," Driver said.
But April 10th changed everything. Robert was a senior and was heading back early from a church retreat in Possum Kingdom, so he could practice for his upcoming state tennis meet.
About an hour before the tornado hit the Falls, Robert left Possum Kingdom and began his trip home, completely unaware that an F-4 tornado had just destroyed his hometown. "As I was coming in, I noticed it had rained, and there were lots of cars coming the other direction. It almost looked like I was in one of those 'B' horror movies, where Godzilla attacks the town, and everyone is leaving, and I'm the only one coming in cause there were cars just--and I had no idea what was going on, until I got to this United and saw--actually the ABB place--there was a corner of the building that was gone. And I went in and the big United sign was bent over. I thought, 'We had a little tornado, no big deal.' Then as I was coming up Dunbarton, I saw one of my friends outside Tom Cats, and he said, 'We had a tornado.' I asked if he knew about my
house and he said, 'I heard it's pretty bad.' So I came up Weeks, and right when I got up to where I could see out, it looked like a war zone. You could see the top of my house from those green cedar trees, and when I looked to the right I couldn't see it; it was gone. Then I knew that this was more than just a little tornado," Driver said.
Robert says his mom and sister were coming in from Dallas that evening, but he knew his dad had been at the house.
"I was terrified. When I went to call his name, I thought, 'Is he going to answer me?' and if he is not, I'm going to have to dig through the rubble and find him, and if not, find out where he went. If he went anywhere," Driver said.
Thankfully Rob's dad did call out. That night the two stayed at the home because of the fear of looting.
"We spent the night on the floor in the dining room area with our shotguns," Driver said.
The storm was over, but the aftermath, Driver said, "Was like a war zone. You get used to markers when you drive down Southwestern Parkway or Midwestern Parkway, and those landmarks, a lot of them, were not there, so if you go to a friend's house, you have to think 'That was the third street...what street is it?' It was just a totally different way of getting around."
The aftermath brought even more devastation, often disregarded. "The tornado hit, so the worst part is over. NO. Now here comes the rain," Driver said. "After the tornado hit, several days later then the rains came, and we had wooden floors upstairs and no roof, and we would get up at 12 o' clock, 1 o' clock, whatever time, and just start trying to squeegee off as much water as we could, so those wooden floors wouldn't buckle, and that was the part I hated the most and it happened more than once."
The next few days were spent sifting through the rubble.
"There was so much debris, we would get a rake and start raking the floor, and my senior ring popped up. Found it. I had this Bible that had seen better days, it was water-stained in the edges. My stereo system was gone other than my speakers...my speaker had a nail in it and the covers were bad, I ended up replacing them but they still work and I still have them today."
But other things in the room showed the true magnitude of this furious storm. Driver said, "My room was an old garage, so it was big enough to put a pool table in, so I had a pool table that ended up in the bathroom." And a one by six that ended up in one of the two remaining walls. The family also found a piece of sheet metal from nearby apartments wrapped around a tree out front, with a stick driven through sheet metal right into the tree, and a cross left hanging undisturbed on a wall in a room completely destroyed.
The damage was intense but also in no particular pattern. The Drivers' kitchen and dining room were undisturbed, while other rooms were a complete loss.
Driver said, "The one thing I remember the most is how much insulation was everywhere. It was in your clothes. Most of the--a lot of the clothes were ruined because insulation was blown everywhere and there were little pieces of insulation all over the place. You washed your shirt and put it on and you itched and, 'Oh, it's no good.' I have had a lot of people ask me, 'How did you handle it?' You know, all your stuff is gone. I was raised to know a lot of this stuff is just stuff, and the fact that all of us were alive and we had each other. We had great friends that came and helped rake, clean off brick. This is antique brick. We reused. We pulled it down. I would come home from school and there would be somebody sitting the front yard, chipping mortar off brick. I'm like, 'Who's that?' and it was one of my dad's friends. This brick is hard to find so we had a lot of people clean up, you really learn who your friends are."
Another piece of important brick to Driver is one he received from his high school.
"At our senior dinner," Driver said, "Everyone got--this is a brick from the gym, and with a description of our class motto, 'Through our victories, we will shine, Senior Class of '79 SHRH,' and down here it says 'The only class to have a piece of the school.' And I still have this. and after we rebuilt, it was on my bookshelves, and now it's over my T.V. at the house I live in now. I thought it was kind of goofy at the time, but when I looked at it and read it and everyone got one, I thought it was a neat momento."
While radar can show you where a tornado is likely to form, it is often storm spotters who will be the first to watch a tornado drop from the sky. Dale Cheek was one of the spotters helping track the storm that day and was even one of the first to watch the tornado form and head straight to the stadium, that terrible Tuesday evening, and today he has his own survival story to tell.
Cheek said, "I left the stadium immediately and began to go east across Southwest Parkway across Wichita Falls, and it appeared the storm was right on my bumper the entire time. I had my brother and sister-in-law with me that day. They had chosen April 10th of 1979 to see what a storm spotter's life was about. We drive past their house off South Lake Park Drive. I can recall my sister-in-law wanting to stop and check on her brother who was in college at that time. We were so panicked, and the adrenaline was so high, I didn't dare stop. Because I knew we could see driveway and knew he wasn't there. But was we were driving east we were meeting several card going to the west. one was a HAM radio operator and I remember telling him he needed to turn around and go back. I remember another spotter who was at the stadium when I left. I remember getting on the radio and telling him he needed to get out of there."
"We were driving down the parkway with the tornado behind us," Cheek said. Which, as you can imagine, had all three passengers scared to death, and they weren't the only ones.
"Traffic was absolutely chaotic. People--there were no traffic signals, everything, all electricity was out. At this time and I recall one vehicle driving down side of the overpass there. We continued on north on Henry Grace with anticipation of going out 287 East. As we turned back north on 287, embedded in my memory is looking back over my shoulder which for the first time, I could look while I was driving, looking back over my shoulder and seeing this tornado with the debris in the air probably in the middle of Wichita Falls at this point and it was just the sickest feeling I think I have ever had," said Cheek. "April 10th, not only changed my life and the direction of my life, but, I think, it changed the direction of everyone that was here. From that day forward I never viewed a tornado the same. Up until that point I had a deathly fear. Which was obviously fear of the unknown. Since then I have gained a since of respect and applied myself to the knowledge to learn more about storms and be able to give that warning that saves lives."
In all, the outbreak produced 13 tornadoes and took 59 lives in Texas and Oklahoma. To honor the lives that were lost and the city that was reborn, Leadership Wichita Falls Class of 2009 is working hard to create a permanent memorial. The class wants to build a monument and trail to memorialize the events of April 10th and, perhaps more importantly, the many days of recovery and rebirth that followed.
They are still raising funds and part of that is being done through a book called "47 Miles: Stories of Loss, Unity and Rebirth from the 1979 Wichita Falls Tornado." It's a collection of firsthand accounts about the April 10th tornado and its aftermath, told by the people who were there.
The group is also holding a community day benefit in late July to kick off the book, just like residents of the Falls did, three months after the tornado ripped through the town.
For more information on the date and location and the upcoming book, we have provided a link to "47 Miles" on our website.