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Texas Storm Killed 29, Injured 120 : Tornado Leveled Town Like a Bomb

Times Staff Writer

Jose Candelas was lucky. He saw the tornado dip from the roiling clouds and begin its angry descent to the earth.

He ran to his house, screamed at his wife and three grandchildren to get in the car, and then gunned it down the road. Candelas could see only a few feet because of the rain and huge hailstones that pelted his windshield. But his wife begged him to keep going or they would die.

Finally, he pulled off the road at the old cotton gin, his vision totally obscured, and waited, hoping that the tornado would not follow. Nature was merciful. Candelas and his family lived.

Returns to Ruins

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Saturday, he returned to the ruins of what once were his home and dry goods store. There was nothing left.

At least 29 people, many of them children, died in the fury of the twister that took aim at this tiny, remote West Texas town of 350 people just as darkness was falling Friday night. Another 120 people were injured as their adobe and wooden houses were crushed to the ground, reduced in seconds to a pile of rubble. This close-knit community, where many of the residents were related, looked Saturday as if it had been hit by a bomb.

The “bomb” hit hardest at the Saragosa Hall, a reinforced concrete building that was by far the sturdiest structure in town. There, a graduation program was under way for 4-year-olds who had participated in a Head Start program. So large was the gathering that the ceremony had been moved from another building to accommodate the crowd. There were nearly 100 people there--children, parents and other relatives. The mood was festive.

Then someone ran in and shouted that a tornado was coming. But the warning was too late. The walls imploded seconds later, sending tons of concrete down on those inside.

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“A parent yelled a tornado was coming, and parents started grabbing their kids from the stage,” said Elodia Garcia, 26, who watched as adults frantically shoved children under tables and benches.

“They told us to take cover, then the windows started shattering, the walls started coming down. It fell on us, but the Lord was with us.” Her family was not injured.

Thomas Martinez, one of those present, saved his wife and daughter by diving under a folding table with them and then pushing up with all his strength to keep it from collapsing.

Reeves County Sheriff Raul Florez said that 18 people died in the community hall and that many of them--he did not know how many Saturday night--were Head Start children. Among them, said a story in a special edition of the Pecos Enterprise, was 1-year-old Jonathan Ross, whose father was to be the main speaker at the event.

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‘This Is the Worst’

“There are about 350 people here and half the town is either injured or dead,” Florez said. “I’ve been with the department for 30 years and this is the worst disaster I’ve ever seen. And I’ve seen a lot of towns get hit by tornadoes.”

“There is no structure left in town,” said David Wells of the state Department of Public Safety.

The National Weather Service office in Midland issued a tornado warning for the area about six minutes before the twister hit. But the town does not have a warning siren, Florez said.

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Standing in the misting rain on Saturday, the sheriff recalled almost verbatim the call that came over the radio from one of his deputies minutes after the twister touched down at 8:10 p.m.: “Tornado has hit Saragosa. Major damage. Many injuries and possibly many fatalities. Need assistance. All assistance immediately.”

The help began to pour in as the long and frantic evening went on, from Midland and Odessa and Pecos, Alpine and Monahans, San Angelo and Abilene.

The most critically injured were rushed to hospitals in ambulances. Overwhelmed staffers at Reeves County Hospital in Pecos were assisted by doctors and nurses who drove in from surrounding cities and towns when they heard news of the disaster. Those who were less seriously injured were loaded into private cars.

Wrecking service operators stuffed huge air bags normally used to upright overturned semitrailers and then inflated them to open up spaces in the community center. The gaps they created were just enough to pull out some of the survivors.

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Backhoe operators began lifting chunks of debris, looking for both bodies and those still living.

On Saturday, Saragosa was subdued and mournful, as residents or their relatives stood where their homes had once been, looking for anything that might be saved. It was a different scene from the night before, when people were so covered with mud and blood that they were not recognizable. The night had been chaotic and confusing.

But on Saturday afternoon, the emergency shelter set up by the Red Cross in the school of nearby Balmorhea was almost empty because the 25 families who spent the night there Friday had found temporary homes with friends and relatives. There were, however, four young girls weeping softly in the corner of the gymnasium.

‘I Want to Start Again’

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In the ruins of Saragosa, Candelas found his wallet in the rubble of what was once his store. He was wearing a plastic garbage sack, with holes punched out for his head and arms, to fend off the rain. He said somewhere in there was a sack containing $170 worth of quarters. He hoped he could find it.

“I want to start again,” he said. “I am 67 years old but I want to start again.

“The cloud,” he said, “looked like a mountain.”

Johnny Morgan, 43, of Midland said he and his family saw the tornado from their car.

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“We . . . watched it grow. I got to the edge of Saragosa and came right by the thing, and it turned around the other way,” he said.

“Buildings were flattened. Cars were strewn about. Power lines were down,” Morgan said. “As we watched it, the stem became wider and wider and darker. As we got to the edge of Saragosa, I really became frightened by it.”

Cars were scattered about the area, crushed like empty beer cans. The tiny church was gone, although, in one of those amazing events that always seem to happen when a tornado strikes, statues of Jesus and an angel stood just as they had before the twister ripped through Saragosa. Telephone poles were snapped and splintered and workers in cherry pickers were repairing the lines. And all of the houses in the town, save a few at the far southwest end, were gone--their contents strewn about the muddy ground.

Blassa Lujan Nino clutched four photo albums that she had found in the ruins of her parents’ home. Her mother had been there alone on Saturday evening, and Lujan’s brother, who lived in nearby Pecos, picked up their mother minutes before the tornado struck for an evening of visiting relatives. They were on the road back to Pecos when Saragosa was destroyed.

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“This used to be my home. I was raised here,” said Lujan, who now lives in Las Cruces, N.M. “It hurts, but we’ve got to pick up what we can.”

At midafternoon, Scott Armstrong of the Permian Basin Humane Society was still scouring the wreckage for animals--dogs and sheep and horses--that will be boarded in Odessa and Midland until they are reclaimed by their owners.

Leonard King, the owner of an Odessa siding company, was wrapping up after he and his crew of volunteers had finished repairing the roofs on the few homes that could be salvaged.

Frances Muniz stood next to the ruins of the church and shook her head.

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“It’s just like hoping to wake up from a nightmare,” she said.

Across the muddy field, a pole had remained standing near the community center and someone had attached an American flag.

It was at half-staff.


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