The 1953 Waco Tornado – An Oral History by Karen Gerhardt Fort, Part 2
On May 11, 1953, I went to school as usual, and Chip stayed at home with our housekeeper. (I’m sorry I can’t recall the lady’s name.) Dad was an inside salesman for Universal Atlas Cement Company, which had a large office on the twelfth floor of the Amicable Life Insurance Company Building. Mother worked as a bookkeeper for Higginbotham Hardware Company a few blocks away. We had only one car. Every morning, Mother dropped Dad off at the Amicable Building (as we called it at home) and picked him up at the end of the workday. Commuting to work was not only practical, it gave them some quiet time together.
If it didn’t sound so overly dramatic, I would subtitle this article “The Day My Three-Year-Old Brother Saved Our Mother’s Life.” But he did. I can prove it.
We lived out on North 32nd Street in a house my parents had hired an architect to design and a contractor to build about two years before. On the afternoon of May 11, Chip, who was inordinately curious, found a low spot in the gravel driveway, burrowed under the garage door, and crawled into the dark garage. Chip had a history of taking clocks apart (but not putting them back together), sampling paint with a high lead content, swallowing the rubber wheels of his small metal cars, and playing with matches. One time he set fire to a bandanna he was wearing around his neck, and the courageous housekeeper had put out the fire with her bare hands. On May 11, when she realized he was missing, she hunted for him all over the house and yard and finally found him in the garage. However, the garage door was locked, and she didn’t have the key. She must have pleaded with him and offered him treats to get him to come out voluntarily, but whether he couldn’t figure out how to wiggle out beneath the door or was too busy exploring, he wouldn’t leave. Desperate, with good reason, our housekeeper telephoned Mother to come and get Chip out of the garage. I have no doubt that Mother left Higginbotham in a hurry and sped across town. When she unlocked the garage door, she found Chip dusty, but neither hurt nor in apparent danger.
By then, it was after four o’clock, too late in the day for Mother to return to work. Black clouds darkened the sky toward downtown. There was no reason for our housekeeper to remain, and with the storm approaching, Mother offered to drive her to her home in East Waco, but she declined, accepting only a ride to her bus stop. (I remember this clearly.) Mother plopped Chip and me in the back seat, and our housekeeper rode up front with Mother.
During the early Fifties, at different times, we had a black Chevrolet and a maroon Plymouth, neither of them new. I remember the Plymouth more clearly than the Chevrolet, but I can’t say with certainty which car Mother was driving on May 11.
At the intersection of Herring Avenue and 5th Street, Mother turned right (eastbound) onto 5th. Ahead of us, huge black clouds roiled above the buildings downtown, while an ugly yellow-green curtain hovered just beneath those clouds. It hadn’t been raining in our suburban part of the city, but as Mother drove downhill on 5th, droplets spattered the roof and hood of the car. Suddenly, wind buffeted and shook the car, and then we heard a whistling noise as rain blew past in horizontal sheets. Hardly able to see where she was going, Mother would have driven slowly toward Austin Avenue. Frightened of storms since very early childhood, she must have been fighting a panic attack, too.
At the intersection of 5th Street and Austin Avenue, Mother turned left onto Austin (northbound). Much later, she told me that, in the rearview mirror, she saw Chris’s Café and other brick buildings begin collapsing into the street. (I was too small to see anything behind the car.) At that moment, she must have been terrified for all of us.
Succumbing to panic and freezing with fear were not options. Flying debris, falling bricks, torrential rain, and the possibility of imminent injury or death required distance. She turned left again, onto 4th Street, but instead of parking along the sidewalk as she normally did, she kept driving uphill. At the top, she crossed Waco Drive and stopped under the canopy of a service station. There we waited in safety, while rain gusted around us, and watched for Dad.