There’s an old indian legend that says the Waco Indians chose this area to settle because it was in a geological recess, protected by hills and bluffs, making it tornado proof.
On May 11, 1953 a reporter telephoned James Dixon, chariman of Baylor University Department of Geology, and asked about the old indian legend. Dixon kind of scoffed and said “It wouldn’t take but one tornado going right across Fifth and Austin to prove that wrong.” A few hours later, that statement became truth.
May 11, 1953 – Ed Berry, president of R. G. Dennis Department Store called his banker, Carroll Sturgis and asked him to come over to the store so they could talk business. Sturgis turned down the offer saying, “Looks like there’s going to be a storm.” ‘Storm’ was an understatement.
On the same day, May 11, 1953, a doctor’s assistant left his office for a moment and ran across the street to grab a newspaper. An article in the paper read that Waco was protected by hills (bluffs) and would never be hit by a tornado.
Just at that moment, a funnel cloud touchdowned and was headed toward downtown Waco. The doctor’s assistant, Ted Lucenay, was buried underneath bricks, boards, and debris. One of Ted’s co-workers was struck by a desk and although they couldn’t see each other, they talked through the wall. “I heard her until she took her last dying breath”, said Lucenay.
At 4:36 p.m., what has become known as “The Waco Tornado” struck the downtown area. Over two blocks wide, the tornado struck with such ferocity that the R.G. Dennis Department Store crumbled, killing 22 people inside, including Ed Berry. Sadly, those 22 people were just the tip of the ice-berg.
In all, 114 people were killed by the tornado and nearly 600 injured, with some survivors trapped beneath the rubble for 14 hours. Despite the massive help, it took several days to recover the bodies of those killed.
The Waco Tornado, rated an F5 on the Fujita scale, damaged 1,000 homes and business and completely destroyed over 600 more, including the Dr. Pepper bottling plant, which today is the Dr. Pepper Museum. Also, 2,000 vehicles were either damaged or destroyed in the high winds. The cost of the Waco Tornado was estimated at about $50 million, which is over $350 million in today’s dollars.
The Waco Tornado was judged to be over 1/3 mile wide with winds reaching at least 260 mph. After the tornado was finished with Waco, it moved north-northeasterly and left a 23-mile long path of destruction. It ranks in at number 10 for the top 10 deadliest tornadoes in American history.
My little own interesting story: I moved to Waco in 1995. I grew up in Plano, TX (suburb of the Dallas area). Anyway, a few years of living in Waco, I was talking to an aunt of mine and she started telling me about the devastation of the Waco Tornado. I asked if she studied up on it, she told me, "No, your mother and I used to live in Waco when were teenagers. As a matter of fact, we had just returned home from shopping in downtown Waco about 20 minutes before the storm hit." I was surprised, I had NO idea that mother ever lived in Waco!