Sweetwater tornado 27 years later

April 19, 2013

Many in Sweetwater remember this day 27 years ago, as a tornado took residents by surprise that April morning. The tornado that occurred about 7:15 a.m. affected about one-sixth of the city's population according to figures gathered by city and civil defense officials at that time. No warning was given by sirens.
One person died as a result of the tornado and 85 were injured with 12 of the injured admitted to Rolling Plains Memorial Hospital and another 12 transferred to Abilene hospitals. Approximately 600-800 homes were damaged to some extent with about 75 percent of those completely destroyed. About 400-500 people were without telephone service that day and most of the city lost electricity for about two hours. Damage to property was estimated at millions of dollars.
The storm followed a zig-zag path an estimated 1,200 to 1,500 feet wide through the southern half of Sweetwater.
Henry C. Tatum, 87, died in his home in the Jack Lambert Drive housing project. A substantial number of the units on Jack Lambert and in the Spring Acres Trailer Park were damaged or destroyed. The tornado cut a southwest-northeast path across about the 1000 block of Lamar Street.
Most streets in the area were blocked, either by downed power and utility lines, trees or some of the hundreds of law enforcement officers controlling intersections.
Rick Rhodes was the mayor when the tornado hit Sweetwater. In answer to a question about the failure of the civil defense siren to give warning, he said the tornado was sighted only when it was settling in Sweetwater and there just wasn't enough time to sound the sirens.
Rhodes said he was very proud of the people of Sweetwater for the way they responded to the emergency and of the people and ambulances and officers from surrounding towns that came in to help during the emergency.
Some residents in Sweetwater had a very frightening experience, while others did not know about the tornado until after it had passed.
Kimberly Lewis of Sweetwater woke up to hailstones hitting her bedroom window. Her husband, Terry, had left for the gypsum plant half an hour before. Two of her children, Nathan and Ashley, were sleeping beside her. Eleven-month-old Amanda was in her own room.
“I looked out the window and saw a couple of garage doors fly across our backyard and my heart froze," she said. "I tried to go get Amanda, but I never made it."
"Next thing I knew, I was outside in the rain." Struggling to see without her glasses, her gown ripped off by the winds, she saw Nathan and Ashley stumbling near the wreckage of the mobile home. They had small cuts and bruises. Amanda was nowhere to be found.
"I can't find my baby!" she cried to her uncle, John Brown, who came running down the street from his house. Debris covered the neighborhood and pieces of the roof were blown across the street. In the middle of the road was the crib in which Amanda had been sleeping. It was twisted.
Neighbors arrived to help in the search for the missing baby. In anguish, Brown lifted one piece of wall after another. Then he found Amanda. She was wrapped in her crib mattress, unharmed except for a few scratches near her right eye. "She never made a sound, she just held out her arms," said Lewis.
Joe Don Smith, who was a member of the Sweetwater Police Department at the time, actually saw the tornado. “I was looking to the southwest when I saw clouds coming together from opposite directions. The rain and hail had stopped and it was starting to get light. I was talking on the radio when I looked back and saw a short, fat tornado just materialize a mile away. Then a sliver of another funnel appeared at the side and the big one sucked it in."
Smith reported the tornado to headquarters then drove to a nursing home to warn its residents. As he headed back into town, the whirlwind almost caught him. "Debris was swirling everywhere. Pieces of metal hit power lines. I crouched as low in the car as I could. It lasted 10 seconds and then it moved on."
Dianna Crowley also remembers the tornado in Sweetwater. "My daughter Alanna was born on April 2, 1986. I was making her a bottle in the kitchen that morning. I noticed an ominous-looking sky, black and greenish, and I took her to the basement for safety. The air was very still at that time, and the electricity went off. Alanna enjoyed the darkness of the basement, as she was a newborn. After awhile, we made our way upstairs and looked out the door. My neighbors were outside and began relating the news that a tornado had hit very close to where we were. As it turns out, the tornado had already passed by the time we went to the basement. It would have hit our house with everyone upstairs, except that my street does a little jig, and the tornado went on a straighter path."
She says that within 30 minutes, lots of friends had checked on their welfare, expecting to find their house leveled and them buried in the basement.
"The town in our area was mostly matchsticks, and I remember wondering how all the mess would ever be cleaned up."
Jennifer Cantu was an elementary school student when the tornado hit Sweetwater in 1986. "I was seven years old. I remember it like it was yesterday. My dad had been listening to the police scanner as they watched for the storm coming in. Dad had us get up and get prepared if we had to run to our neighbor's cellar. Sure enough, with no warning or sirens, a tornado was on the ground. Thanks to my dad's police scanner, we all ran for shelter next door just in time. Being in that cellar, it sounded like a train was driving over our heads. It was a scary feeling, especially at that age."
Sweetwater resident Martha Montoya did not know that a tornado had hit Sweetwater until after it had passed. "Actually we heard it, but living where I do I figured it was the train. I went outside to roll up my windows in the car and didn't notice a thing except that the train must've really been going fast because I didn't see it."
Montoya says that her mother called her and asked that she check on her brother, who at the time was working at the John Deere house across from the TA. “She said there had been a tornado. I responded with 'We didn't have a tornado, but I will check on him.' Driving down Lamar Street I see all the damage and sure enough there had been a tornado, which is what I actually heard that morning and not the train."
Local teacher LouAnn Cumbie remembers how the tornado affected her students. "I was teaching at Southeast Elementary and most of my students lost their homes. A friend in Highland Park gathered things together at her church. We filled the gym full of household items and clothes. Kids and their parents could pick out items they needed."
Recently retired Chief of Police Jim Kelley remembers how the town came together after the tornado. "Without any training for that type of situation, I think all the agencies came together pretty well. The TSTC police, DPS, Nolan County Sheriff's Office, Sweetwater Police Department and Sweetwater Fire Department, as well as deputies from all over the area including Taylor, Scurry and Fisher Counties helped. Some emptied their own counties and came to help us."
Kelley says that the officers drafted people with Broncos and pickups and loaded wounded into the back of them to take them to the emergency room. "It was an interesting several days. We worked 8 straight days and nights with 12 hours on and 12 hours off."
Kelley says that the damage from the tornado was tremendous, but many came out of the woodwork to help the town and neighbors helped one another. "I think that is when I started realizing the good of this town, seeing what people were willing to do for one another. I then learned the heart of the town throughout the rest of my career. I got to see the goodness in the people of Sweetwater many times."

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