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May 4th, 2011
Bartee Haile: Deadly day of the twisters


This Week in Texas History: A column

A freak storm swept across Texas on May 6, 1930 spewing tornadoes from the Red River to the Gulf of Mexico and leaving a trail of broken homes, broken dreams and broken bodies.

The first twister of that terrible day touched down near Childress on the southeastern edge of the Panhandle. Two farmhouses were flattened, and four people were treated for minor injuries.

As the boiling, black tempest rolled east, gale-force winds wreaked havoc from Bowie to Brownwood. Tornadoes danced through the wide-open countryside, where settlements were few and far between, without taking a life.

But it was a different story in the more densely populated counties south of Dallas. Twisters killed three at Ennis and Ensign in Ellis County and 19 more next door in Hill County at Bynum, Irene and Mertens.

The merciless monster then invaded Navarro County. At Frost, a farming community of 800 sixteen miles due west of Corsicana, frightened inhabitants sought shelter in the brick business district. For many that snap decision was a fatal mistake.

Recognizing the distinctive roar of the approaching tornado, the superintendent hurriedly herded students into the basement. The funnel cloud passed directly over the school ripping off the roof, but his quick thinking saved the children.

A father felt his boy would be safer at home and came to fetch him moments before the evacuation. The man lost his son as well as his wife in the collapse of their frame dwelling.

“It looked like a long plume of smoke coming from the southwest,” a merchant remembered. “It hung for a moment over a small lake and then was on us with a burst of fury.”

The tornado tore the heart right out of Frost reducing everything to rubble except the local jail. The pharmacist and a teenaged customer, who was sipping a soda at the counter, perished in the drug store. A delivery driver dashed inside the grocery just in time to die, while his truck sat untouched at the curb. A baby was snatched from its mother’s arms never to be seen again.

Both banks were completely destroyed, but a thick vault shielded employees and customers from flying debris. A like-minded butcher found similar sanctuary in his walk-in refrigerator.

With the funeral parlor wrecked, a private home was pressed into service as a temporary morgue. Before graves could be dug for the 22 victims, shattered tombstones had to be cleared away at the cemetery.

The pessimistic mayor of Frost predicted, “I doubt if the town will ever be rebuilt to the extent it was before the storm.” Fortunately his constituents were made of stronger stuff.

The ferocious front moved south growing in size and strength by the minute. Twisters struck as far east as the Louisiana border claiming two lives in Bronson and as far west as San Antonio, where one fatality was recorded. But the worst was yet to come.

A tornado split the seven-mile difference between Nordheim and Runge, agricultural centers which straddled the DeWitt-Karnes county line. Thirty-six died in a kill zone 300 yards wide and 15 miles long.

Tenant farmer Saragoza Garcia and his brother-in-law were plowing a field, when the clear sky suddenly darkened. The helper went indoors with Garcia’s wife, six children and mother-in-law, but Saragoza ignored their shouts and kept on working.

A snake-like finger shot out of the clouds and struck the ramshackle residence dead center. The house exploded scattering the remains of the nine occupants over a quarter-mile radius. Though seriously hurt in a collision with a flying plow, Saragoza Garcia forced himself to attend the mass funeral for his family two days later.

Dirt-poor sharecroppers accounted for nearly half the deaths in the devastated area. Seven members of a second tenant clan were killed three miles south of Runge.

The dead and injured shared the same room in Nordheim. On one side of a sheet hanging from a wire was the makeshift morgue, while on the other was the first-aid station.

As always, there were incredibly close calls and miraculous escapes. The Frost twister picked up a home, carried it several hundred yards and returned it to earth without cracking the paint. Three individuals in the living room were badly shaken but unscathed. A couple and their small daughter had just sat down to supper, when the Nordheim-Runge tornado blew their house away but left them unharmed at the table.

At least 30 counties sustained significant property damage from high winds and tornadoes unleashed by the storm of May 6, 1930. A dozen small towns and hamlets contributed to the final body count of 86, a death toll surpassed only by the tornadoes at Goliad in 1902 and Waco in 1953.

Column collections available at or request list from Bartee Haile, P.O. Box 152, Friendswood, TX 7754.

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