Monster from the Sky: How one day changed the City of Waco

Monster From The Sky-Master
Published: May. 7, 2023 at 7:06 PM CDT|Updated: May. 11, 2023 at 6:02 PM CDT
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WACO, Texas (KWTX) - Before May 11, 1953, many Waco residents subscribed to the old Native American legend that Waco was immune from tornadoes.

According to the popular saga, Huaco Indians settled in the area near the confluence of the Brazos and Bosque rivers because they thought the location in the geological recess of hills and bluffs would keep them safe from tornadoes and other violent storms.

That myth was repeated over the years and, for the most part, held true until a powerful F-5 tornado ripped a deadly swath through downtown Waco 70 years ago, killing 114, injuring at least 600 others and causing an estimated $50 million in damage.

Many World War II combat veterans likened the devastation left in the wake of the storm to bombed-out cities in Europe.

A series of strong storms and tornadoes passed through San Angelo earlier in the day. But as the storm set its sights on Waco, Gloria Burch and Alta Powers remember thinking about the Huaco Indian tale, which lulled them into a false sense of security.

Burch and her best friend both were 17 and came downtown to pick up the family car at her mother’s job. Their family only had one car, so they picked up Burch’s father and then went to the Texas Seed Co. at Fourth and Franklin to get some food for her parakeets.

The rain was intensifying and softball-size hail started to batter their car and the downtown area. Her friend, Barbara, was starting to get scared, she said.

“I kept saying, ‘Barbara, I don’t know why you’re so scared because the Indians said Waco would never have a tornado,’ you know? So I just kept driving and doing what I was supposed to do.”

When they got to the store, there wasn’t a place to park. So her father got out and went inside, while she and her friend circled the block before spotting an open parking place in front of the store.

“About that time, it started getting bad and Daddy was standing in the doorway, motioning us to come in with him,” she said.

Her friend got out of the car and was almost swept down the street by the gusting winds, she said. Her father pulled her into the store as Burch slid over from the driver’s side to the passenger’s side to get out of the car.

Before she could get out, “it happened,” she said – the tornado was upon them.

“I never had a chance to get out of the car, which probably saved my life,” Burch said.

As she hunkered down in the car, she noticed that traffic lights “were standing straight up, not down.” Next, she thought someone was holding a white sheet in front of her car window.

“It was hail, sheets of hail,” she said. “Not balls of hail, sheets of hail. So even if I’d been able to get out of the car, I might have been cut to pieces with that hail, you know?”

Debris from the storm, including bricks, wooden beams and roofing materials, rained down onto her car. After the tornado passed, two men dug her out of the car and she scrambled to the demolished building, where her father and best friend were buried beneath rubble.

She said she tried to dig through the debris to reach them.

“I guess I was hysterical, and somebody came up, and they didn’t actually slap me, but they shook me and brought me back to reality,” Burch said.

The next day, rescue workers pulled her father’s body from the front of the store. Later, they found Barbara’s body toward the back of the store, she said.

Burch said she and Barbara were close friends and had many classes together.

“When I went back to school after that happened, the teachers had made sure that somebody was sitting in her chair, and there wasn’t just an empty chair sitting there in the classroom,” she said

Like Burch, Powers was aware of the steady rain that day, but she said she wasn’t worried about the possibility of a tornado.

“No. The Indians had settled in Waco because it would never have a storm,” she said.

Powers and her sister were riding in a car with their mother. They were heading downtown to a doctor’s office so her sister could get some stiches taken out of her foot.

As the rain grew heavier and the softball-size hail began to pelt the family’s new car, her mother decided to head toward her brother’s service station on Webster, where they planned to take shelter under an awning there, Powers said.

They drove down Fifth Street and got to the railroad tracks when they discovered their headlights were ineffective in the worsening storm.

“It had just gotten black … I mean how does the atmosphere get so thick that your headlights don’t penetrate? So Mother stopped as we got to the railroad tracks and we started praying,” Powers said.

Suddenly, a utility pole fell on the front of their car, cutting Powers’ finger and leaving a small scar as a reminder of the harrowing experience. Then the remnants of a laundry were blown onto the back of their car and other cars parked along the curb.

After the storm passed, her uncle found them and carried her sister to his service station as they waded through knee-deep water.

“How people kept from getting electrocuted? No idea, because the power lines were down in that water we were walking through,” Powers said. “But I guess God was looking after us.”

To this day, Burch is fine in a gentle rain storm but said she can’t count the number of times she has rushed for the shelter of a closet over the years when strong winds are in the area.

“It is something that is just seared into our brain,” Burch said.

KWTX Chief Meteorologist Brady Taylor tells Powers’ and Burch’s survival stories as well as others in an in-depth look at the huge Waco tornado 70 years later in a documentary called “Monster from the Sky.”

The one-hour project airs at 6 p.m. Thursday and features Waco residents describing the storm and its aftermath and shows how the tornado changed the landscape of downtown Waco.