After sunset on May 11, 1970, a nightmarish tornado touched down in Lubbock, Texas. At 1.5 miles wide, its outer wall of howling, 200-plus-mile-per-hour winds swept across the southeast and then northeast corners of Texas Tech University as the tornado swung in an arc, skirting the campus but devastating the surrounding neighborhoods, before barreling away northeast.
Survivors recalled a deafening silence in its immediate aftermath, as if the whole city was struggling to regain its breath.
That's when Texas Tech sprang into action.
Throughout the night, Texas Tech students were out, trying to help in any way. Some were recognized by name; a great many more were not.
Students with ham radio skills and equipment assisted first responders. Individuals directed traffic along streets where downed power lines made stoplights inoperable.
D. E. “Skip” Goulet, a junior who regularly volunteered as an ambulance dispatcher, and his friend Jimmy Logan used borrowed ambulances to transport storm victims to the hospitals or funeral homes.
An editorial in the May 15 Avalanche-Journal praised the Texas Tech students “who rallied so magnificently in the aftermath of Monday night's storm.”
“Almost before the tornado moved out of the University area, young people of both sexes were out in driving rain to do what they could. Some checked nearby motor hotels and residences to see if their occupants needed help and, if so, what kind. Others dug up flashlights and helped motorists who were attempting, in pitch dark, to get to the downtown area or, in some cases, to the homes of friends and relatives in the hardest hit sections.
“Those young people who made it downtown volunteered their services to businessmen who'd gotten to their stores and shops, helping guard the premises. In one instance reported to The Avalanche-Journal by friends of the store owner, two university students who helped with the guarding stayed until after daylight and, as they left, declined to give their names. ‘We aren't looking for credit,' one said. ‘We just wanted to help in some way.'”
That seemed to be the prevailing spirit.
While Texas Tech escaped the worst of the tornado's wrath, part of the north side of the Home Economics building was blown off and extensive damage was done to the inside, said B. K. Beckwith, the university's director of information services at the time. Nearly all the windows on the north side of the Business Administration building had been blown out, more than 100 trees were uprooted and three of the giant light poles at Jones Stadium had been folded in half. The Kappa Alpha Theta sorority house on Broadway was destroyed.
The morning after the tornado, a dozen members of the men's service fraternity Alpha Phi Omega and men from the College of Agricultural Sciences were among those who turned out to help remove debris.
But the damage wasn't limited to windows, trees and lights, or even houses. Out of the 26 people killed in the tornado, one was a Texas Tech student. Steve Cox was driving into town with his wife, and they wound up straight in the funnel's path.
Additionally, then-City Manager Bill Blackwell said most of Lubbock's water supply was spoiled when the tornado ripped through the city's water mains. The water from those mains, along with runoff from the storm, made most of the streets impassable except for people willing to wade.
A stretch of U.S. 87, which passed below north Loop 289, was flooded by more than 15 feet of water on May 12. The Avalanche-Journal reported as many as four cars and at least one large truck were believed to be submerged.
That's where five Texas Tech students – all diving hobbyists – converged to help look for victims. Allen Newman, still in his wet suit, told the newspaper he'd spent more than four hours squinting through inky water that blocked out the afternoon sun.
“It's unbelievable down there,” he said. “You can't see anything. It's dark as night, the mud and silt is so thick.”
Texas Tech did not cancel the last final exams, which were scheduled for May 12, but it did cancel that weekend's Board of Regents meeting and, for the first and only time in the university's history, it cancelled commencement ceremonies.
That's because the university was busy with more important things; it had opened its doors to the community.
While there is never a good time to be hit by a tornado, then-Texas Tech President Grover E. Murray noted that because the disaster occurred when most students had left campus for the semester, the physical facilities were free.
On May 12, members of the Saddle Tramps helped move service personnel, including civil defense workers, into Sneed Hall. The dormitory became a temporary home for 10 Lubbock Power & Light repairmen, seven power and light crewmen from Andrews and 10 from Midland, 50 National Guard personnel from Snyder and six from Amarillo, and 13 U.S. Army Corps of Engineers personnel from Fort Worth.
First Lt. Cecil D. Vineyard, commander of the National Guard company in Snyder, said students still in the dormitory had dubbed it “Camp Sneed – Operation Hub.”
“We came expecting hardships,” Vineyard said. “Instead, we've been treated royally by the people of Lubbock, and our living conditions and food are great.”
Ninety-three Department of Public Safety officers and Red Cross personnel were housed elsewhere on campus that night. Hundreds of people left homeless after the tornado were housed in the Municipal Coliseum.
“They came in damaged cars, by busloads – with depressed, defeated feelings, lost, frightened expressions,” the Avalanche-Journal reported. “But at the Coliseum they found a haven – warm, dry beds and bedding, warm food.”
By early evening the 1,000 beds in the Coliseum had been filled and the overflow was being directed to Drane Hall, where 300 additional beds were expected to fill by bedtime. Ultimately, Drane, Weeks, Sneed and Gordon halls were opened, and approximately 300 persons were fed in campus facilities.
On May 13, Murray announced the cancellation of commencement ceremonies, which had been scheduled to occur in the Coliseum, as well as ROTC commissioning ceremonies and all other campus meetings, receptions and reunions.
“In light of the tragic events of Monday night and the role of the university in supplying housing and food for tornado victims throughout the city, we feel the best interests of the city and university will be served by the cancellation of commencement exercises and related activities,” Murray said.
“We are proud to have been able to make a sizable contribution at Texas Tech to the city of Lubbock and its residents during a time of crisis. We appreciate deeply the day-to-day support this university receives from residents of Lubbock and the area in the form of good will, financial contributions, counsel and countless other ways, and we are happy to respond in every way possible now to the city's emergency needs.”