Joel Manes Story
We received the following letter from Joel Manes, who was living in Wichita Falls, Texas on April 10, 1979. On that day, at least 13 separate tornadoes touched down in the Texas/Oklahoma area, striking Wichita Falls, Vernon, Seymour, and a number of other towns. To date, it is the most damaging tornado in US history. His account is a compelling argument against trying to escape from a tornado by fleeing in a car. This is his story.
I was born in Wichita Falls, 3/22/61, and I've seen a few wall clouds and such in my time. Let me tell you about one spring day Ill never forget. In fact, I have recurring nightmares about multiple tornadoes, one just three days ago.
We lived in Iowa Park. The highest point in Wichita County was only three or four blocks from my home. I remember the weather was blustery, then calm, then blustery again.
A friend of mine and I climbed on top of this gas station that was on the top of the hill, and watched the clouds going nuts. All the while ambulances and fire trucks were zooming by towards the west. We figured there must be a bad car wreck on highway 287. What we didnt know was that a tornado had just killed 10 people in Vernon. I distinctly remember seeing four different levels of clouds going four different directions at different speeds and of different colors.
I had to leave because my mother and I were due to go see a movie at Parker Square(corner of Kemp and Kell). It was The China Syndrome. We got to the movie, no problem, it wasnt raining or anything. Mom went in and I went around back to sneak another cigarette. I was on the east side of the building, hiding behind an air conditioning unit. I walked back around the south corner and side, and on around to the west side where the entrance is. I remember seeing a black cloud off to the southwest. I went inside and sat down away from Mom so she wouldnt smell the cigarettes on me. You know the circular vents in the ceilings of some buildings, the ones with the butterfly closure inside and the pull chain activator? Well, the ceiling vents were opening and closing and my ears were driving me up the wall.
There were still advertisements on so I snuck outside for one more cigarette. This time I stood on the south wall just around the corner. As I was standing there the wind was alternating every which way, and I looked south and saw a cloud form and shoot west. I thought Wow, that was fast! In a few moments another one formed and shot to my right so I looked southwest and WAMMY!!
There it was, southwest of me, not a nice place to be. These clouds were forming and flying straight towards this big black cloud on the ground. I didn't understand what was happening, but it sure was wild. Put your arms straight out in front of you and level. Notice the distance between your hands, and then swing your arms outward and level twice shoulder width. Thats how much of my field of view was filled with the tornado.
It was only a mile or a mile and a half wide, but when it is only (or less)than 2 miles away, it is HUGE! I could hear it by now. The little clouds that were shooting towards it were being whipped upwards into the tornado and power lines were sparking and stuff was flying everywhere. This one actually traveled mostly east, but any tornado southwest of you is usually gonna get you in Texas, so I ran in the cinema and yelled TORNADO! at the top of my lungs. My mom was 5 foot 2 and over 200 pounds, but she outran everybody except me outta there! She believed the tone of my voice!
We,(not exactly advisable) ran out to the car and hauled ass eastward. The street(Kell), runs east-northeast, and is a divided six lane now, but then it was a divided four lane with street lights about every mile or so. Nobody was stopping for the lights, everybody was going at full throttle and east or north bound. I looked repeatedly in my mirrors and the tornado was in all three mirrors. It had a forward ground speed of 70 mph, needless to say we were moving a hell of a lot faster.
Once we got out to 287 I was being passed on all sides and I was doing over 80 at times while on Kell and over 100 while on 287. Mom kept watching the tornado and giving driving instructions...She kept asking , demanding we go faster. I looked and at that time we were pegged out at 110(the speedometer limiting peg stopped reading at 110). Im sure we were at 120+.
I kid you not, a traffic jam at over 120+ mph is wild, everybody was flying. I got passed by a pickup that was completely in the median and grass at over 120 mph. Wow!
Mom insisted we needed to turn south and cut away from the tornado, but the exits were full, backed up completely, so we and several others took off across a wheat field dirt track style, and went south. Soon, in less than a mile, the area was like a parking lot, as people had pulled over and stopped. Cars were parked everywhere and every which way, with people standing around and watching the tornado pass to the north of them. One fellow right in front of us was filming it with what was probably a super 8 camera.
By now it was just over the armory, and wiping out brand new car lots. This image is burned into my memory. I dont know if it was explosives from the armory or lightning, but this baby was giving a light show extraordinaire!
Sarah Hull(my girlfriend) and her sister were killed in the tornado, crushed by the wall they took shelter against. Many people were killed in their cars as they tried to flee, even some who had parked under an overpass. I was just lucky.
Im a truckdriver, I get to see a lot of country and I have been in 14 countries and 40 states, and NOTHING has ever been as impressive as that tornado.
At least 25 of the 42 deaths in the Wichita Falls tornado were auto-related, and 30 of the 59 people who were seriously injured were also in autos. Joel was one of the lucky ones.