It was a Monday, the second-to-last day of finals at Texas Tech University. Many students had already finished their exams for the semester and gone home. Of the students who remained, some were Lubbock natives, some were staying for work and some were eagerly awaiting their college graduation that weekend.
It was May 11, 1970, a date Lubbock will never forget. None of the students knew that, in the next 24 hours, the city would be changed forever.
Kathie was a junior at Texas Tech. She and her husband lived at the Sky Vue Mobile Lodge, east of Lubbock near Buffalo Springs. Her husband was on a business trip to Plainview that day, so she was home alone with their dog. As evening began to fall, the sky outside the mobile home became increasingly ominous.
Deciding she didn't want to be in a mobile home in case of a serious storm, Kathie went to Sky Vue's office area shortly after 8 p.m. Other residents soon joined her in a carport above the cellar as golf-ball-sized hail dropped from the sky. The hail paused for a few moments, but as she examined the increasingly threatening clouds overhead, Kathie wasn't reassured. A few minutes later, another round of hail began – this time baseball-sized.
“We were really scared and began to work our way into the cellar – about 20 people were down below,” she recalled. “My neighbor came bounding down the steps and told us the biggest hailstone she'd ever seen had just fallen out of the sky.”
As Kathie and her neighbors waited anxiously below ground, an off-duty policeman above ground reported a funnel cloud seven miles south of the Lubbock Municipal Airport. At 8:30 p.m., a tornado touched down near Broadway and Quirt Avenue – now called Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. – still several miles away.
About 9:30, a neighbor with a radio told the group Lubbock had been hit by a massive storm.
“I couldn't imagine anything more massive than what was occurring with us,” she said.
“When we thought it was safe, we ventured back upstairs to find our trailers shredded, with jagged rips in the siding and all the windows shattered. I'll never forget the sight of those large, football-shaped hailstones lying in my yard, illuminated by the flashing lightning as the storm receded.”
But the storm was just getting started.
“Skip”, a junior, was at the Village Inn Restaurant on the Brownfield Highway with some friends that evening. They were members of a local citizens band (CB) radio club, called the Southwestern Radio Emergency Associated Citizen's Team (REACT), that helped with emergency communications.
It wasn't long before they started receiving weather advisories over their CB radios, and the REACT members began to scatter – to the Clovis Highway, the Brownfield Highway, the Slaton Highway and Idalou – to monitor the storm.
Skip and his best friend, Jimmy D. Logan, went to Jimmy's house near 24th Street and Avenue U to monitor the CB base station and listen in on the police radio channel over Jimmy's receiver. About 9:15 p.m., the police dispatcher announced that Idalou's tornado sirens were being sounded.
“A few minutes later, a police unit on Clovis Road hollered into his mic, ‘We've been hit, we've been hit! It's terrible!'” Skip remembered. “With that, all hell broke loose.”
A few blocks south of Texas Tech, Rhonda and a friend kept an eye on the skies.
“I remember commenting about how unusual the colors were: shades of purple and green in huge thunderheads billowing up high in the sky,” she said.
The rain began around dinnertime, large, slow drops at first, then later, driving rain with fierce winds.
“My friend, who was from Lubbock, began taking notice of these extreme weather conditions – then the hail started,” Rhonda recalled. “Because of the huge tree just outside, my friend thought it would be best to get out of the house.
“We grabbed a single-sized mattress, covered our heads and made a mad dash to the house next door because they had a tornado-type shelter. Big hail pelted us. The mattress protected our fragile heads, but not our legs. Talk about hurt and sting, it sure did.”
From the neighbor's house, Rhonda watched as a funnel cloud began to lower from the sky above.
“I've never been so scared,” she said.
The second tornado touched down at 9:35 p.m. near 22nd Street and Akron Avenue, and began its path of destruction northeast.
David had finally returned to his rental house on 32nd Street after a full shift at the W. D. Wilkins furniture store.
But as the storm neared, any hope of a relaxing evening vanished. As the rain and hail pounded the house, David and his housemates took shelter.
“We got into the bath tub and placed a mattress over us,” he said.
The noise of a train was ringing in their ears.
On the Texas Tech campus, Maryh, a senior, was in her room in Coleman Hall. Looking out the window, she realized the rain was blowing straight sideways – parallel to the top and bottom frames. As a student worker in the residence hall's office, she had learned a handy trick: during a tornado, TV channel 2 would go to static.
“I didn't have a TV, but I had an FM radio that could pick up the audio from channel 2, so I turned that on,” she said. “Soon the voices from the TV program were replaced by static.”
Already dressed for bed, Maryh hurriedly changed clothes and ran down the stairs to confer with the dorm mother, a spry but elderly woman who, just then, was quite upset. And understandably so – a tunnel under the building offered shelter, but only to those who were there, and, with finals over, most of the remaining students had been out on dates or at parties.
“I asked her to go and watch her television in order to report any news of the storm to me, and I took over putting my girls and their dates in the tunnel under the building as they came in from their dates,” Maryh recalled. “A taxi driver came in, too, seeking shelter. Our dorm complex of nearly new high-rise dorms was the only place on campus with power, and he had seen our lights.
“I stayed up all night making certain my girls were safe and listening to the growing casualty list as reported on the radio. I was praying none of the Texas Tech students were on it.”
Marilyn, a senior in home economics education, was working at the McDonald's at 19th Street and Avenue X alongside her fiancé, Mike. Because of the weather, all the customers except one family had left the restaurant. Suddenly, fierce rain and hail began pounding the windows parallel to the ground. Mike, one of the managers, told everyone he was going to lock the doors and send them all to the basement. He invited the family to join the employees, but they chose to run for their car and head home.
Mike headed first for the double doors at the front, facing 19th Street. Glancing out the large windows overlooking the west parking lot, he saw two commercial-size trash cans disappear straight up into the rain and hail. Not realizing what was happening, he hurried to the doors. As he inserted the key, his other hand on the handle, both doors were suddenly sucked open from the outside. At the same instant, the restaurant's back door was sucked open and off its hinges.
Pulled outward, and hanging onto the handle and door, Mike saw the large McDonald's street sign fly straight up in the air, leaving behind only the two poles coming out of the ground. Although he couldn't see any funnel, he realized it must be a tornado.
“Abandoning the doors, Mike began yelling for us to get into the basement immediately,” Marilyn said.
Gary, a fellow Texas Tech student and McDonald's manager, had emerged from the basement just in time to see the destruction, so he led the others back down.
“As we got downstairs in the basement, we heard the wind reach its peak and what most people describe as the sound of a train going right above your head,” he said. “It was an incredible sound and one I'll never forget. It seemed to last for just a few minutes and then it was eerily quiet.”
One mile northeast of McDonald's, sophomore Tesi was in a car with her friends. Since it was her last night in town before heading home to Victoria for the summer, they had called while she was packing up her room on the ninth floor of Chitwood Hall and asked if she wanted to go downtown for dinner.
“It was raining very hard, but being young and foolish, I said OK,” she recalled. “We never went to Downtown Lubbock, but decided to do just that on this one fateful evening. I could barely make it to their car, the rain was so fierce, but I did get into the auto and we slowly drove, with wipers barely working, to this restaurant, the In Town Inn.”
The restaurant, attached to a motel at Main Street and Avenue K, had floor-to-ceiling windows on three sides, with the kitchen on the fourth. With the blinding rain and wind gusts, it was difficult for Tesi and her friends to even get to the door, but once inside, they finally sat down and prepared to order their food.
“As the waitress was placing our silverware on the table an ungodly noise rose up,” she said. “I looked and saw that each of those enormous windows was presenting a spiderweb pattern for an instant, and then the glass from the windows imploded, and it all came towards the center of the room.
“The waitress yelled for the customers to run and follow her. I got up amidst deafening noise, darkness and glass everywhere. I ran, returned for a second to get my purse and then bolted towards the basement stairs with everyone else.”
The basement was full of motel guests, but it was pitch black. Unable to see anything, Tesi and her friends had no idea what was happening.
“Some people were hysterical,” she remembered. “I have always been a calm person, but, I must say, I was extremely puzzled – not frightened, really, but wondering what was going on.”
Steve, a 26-year-old Vietnam veteran and Texas Tech graduate student in business, was trying to get home. He and his wife, Glenna, a teacher in Hale Center, had been visiting relatives in Shallowater and were just returning to town.
Because of the intensity of the storm, they stopped along Clovis Highway near Avenue Q and took refuge outside their car.
The tornado dealt them a direct hit.
Ralph, a senior in electrical engineering, was in his apartment at Tech Village, near Fourth Street and Detroit Avenue. He was still settling into the first-floor apartment his family had moved into from the second floor just three weeks earlier, but that night he was alone – his wife and daughter had returned to Kermit for the summer only a few days before.
He'd heard the National Weather Service's tornado warning, so when the lights went out and the phone died in the middle of a call, he suspected the worst.
“I had a flashlight and was able to watch the front door from the inside during the tornado passing overhead,” he said. “I had water being blown around the door and hitting me a good 10 feet away. The sound was deafening.”
Linda, a senior, was trying to get home from the Lubbock Municipal Airport. A friend had picked her up, but while they were on the highway, the hail hit. They pulled over and took cover under an awning at the Lubbock Country Club, but after about half an hour,
They were able to continue. When they reached Fourth Street, they turned west, but by Avenue T, it was raining so hard they couldn't see the road.
Following the tail lights of the car ahead, they turned off Fourth Street onto Avenue U and parked alongside a dumpster in the parking lot of the Ozarka Bottled Water warehouse. Linda remembers the rain stopping, but the wind was so strong she couldn't open the passenger door, so they waited in the car for about 10 minutes.
Suddenly, Linda felt an inexplicable urge to get out of the car.
“I talked my friend into getting out and running – where, we didn't know,” she said. “Luckily as we ran down the alley, the garage door to the warehouse was open. We ran in and were greeted by two men; one worked there, the other was the driver of the car we followed.”
The men led Linda and her friend into the building's office, where the other driver's wife and two preschool-age children were waiting. They could hear that the wind had died down outside. From the back of the room, Linda watched her friend approach a large plate-glass window to check on her car.
“Just as she was about 8 feet from the window, all hell broke loose,” Linda recalled. “There was an exploding sound, combined with breaking glass. I instantly dropped to the floor with knees and legs under me, head tucked down, arms and hands protecting my head and neck. A ceiling tile fell on me.
“At some point not very long after that explosion, I got up and ran with everyone else to take shelter in the hall with two very large ceiling tiles over us. The family was reciting the Lord's Prayer in Spanish and my friend and I in English while the sound of a freight train raged outside.”
In the 100 block of Avenue O, Carmen was joking with her sister, Lupe, about the ferocious storm. While Lupe washed the dishes, their mother said she thought a tornado was coming – she had experienced one as a young girl and said the sudden quiet was eerily familiar to her. Carmen said to Lupe, “Hurry up and finish the dishes; I want to bake a cake for when the tornado comes.” Their mother, attempting to joke with them, volunteered to make the coffee.
But as the quiet intensified, their mother grew increasingly uneasy.
“I remember it got really quiet, so my mother said, ‘Everyone head to the back room and start praying. The tornado is coming,'” Carmen remembered.
Carmen, Lupe, and their sisters Liz and Brenda closed the windows and doors to the bedrooms along the hallway, until Brenda, overcome with fear, froze – crying and unable to move. Carmen grabbed her and pulled her into the back bedroom.
“We all knelt down on the floor and started praying and singing hymns,” Carmen said.
She suddenly realized her mother wasn't in the room with the others. She found her mother standing in the open front door, monitoring the storm.
“I said to her, ‘Come on back before you get hurt,' and finally she closed the door and we both headed back to the bedroom,” Carmen said. “It was seconds later that there was loud sound like a big train coming through the house, and the wind was howling in the hallway. It all happened so quickly that I did not have time to be scared.”
That wasn't the case for Debbie, a junior, who had been monitoring the weather all day at the Lubbock Municipal Airport. It was the first day of her summer job as a receptionist and radio operator for Piper Airlines, and she'd spent the day answering the phone, filling out paperwork and learning the ropes.
By 8 p.m., it was just her and one flight instructor who'd stayed late for a flight instrumentation class that evening. Done with the lesson, he was checking the weather reports because of the severity of the rainstorm pounding on the windows. The desk where she worked was surrounded on the east and south sides by huge plate glass windows and double-glass doors. The eastern windows faced the airport runways; the southern ones faced Lubbock.
“It was quite a light show with all the lightning and thunder,” she recalled. “The winds had picked up, some hail was being reported and the rain was torrential at times.”
She was supposed to work until 9 p.m., but the weather had affected the flow of air traffic, so business had become nonexistent. She was considering leaving a few minutes early if the storm let up.
“The pilot advised me to wait until the storm had passed completely,” she said.
Before long, it became apparent that was the right call. The National Weather Bureau office, also located at the airport, recorded 2-inch diameter hail at 9:31 p.m. Four minutes later, the tornado touched down and began its path northeast toward the airport.
“I was told to take cover, so I huddled under the boss's desk because it was centrally located and was the biggest and heaviest piece of furniture I could find,” Debbie said. “The pilot remained in the reception area with his flashlight watching the clouds.”
At 10:03 p.m., the tornado roared over the Lubbock Municipal Airport.
“The tornado was so close to cause enough suction to create a vacuum that caused the huge glass windows to bow outward and the double-glass doors were pulled open,” she remembered. “For just a brief moment it was as if the air was sucked out of me and the building, but gradually, the storm subsided and it was eerily quiet and very dark outside.
“It was as if Lubbock momentarily stood still in the aftermath of all the destruction. The silence was deafening.”