The 1953 Waco Tornado – An Oral History by Bill Little
As we move into our final weeks of StomWatch 2013, we’d like to share another story of that day. During the exhibit’s opening weeks, Bill Little happened to be in a tour group coming through the Museum. During his tour, he realized he had a unique story to tell about his personal experiences of that day. You see, he was working in our building – the Dr Pepper Bottling Plant – that day and lived to tell his story. Since then he has gone to finish his degree from Baylor, get several others, and then teach at Southwestern Baptist University, and somewhere along the way married another fine Baylor graduate – Mary Barnett.
Here is Bill Little’s story in his own words:
Such a beautiful day this May 11th 2013, so unlike the afternoon was sixty years ago of May 11th. The events of that terrible day still linger heavily in my mind as though it was just yesterday. The morning started as many spring days in Waco being hot and humid. As soon as my late morning class was over at Baylor, I headed down to the Dr Pepper plant to work as a checker. During the early afternoon, reports came in of tornadoes seen in the San Angelo area and heading to the northeast. No one expressed any concern because of the old Indian legend that Waco had immunity from tornadoes. At about 3 pm several of our trucks pulled into the dock to be checked out before it possibly started to rain. Shorty, our chief mechanic, was checking each truck to be sure everything was ready to go in the morning. Several men from upstairs were unloading 100 pound sacks of sugar from boxcars on the north side of the plant. I noticed that the boxcars were about one-third unloaded as it started to lightly rain. It was now after 4 pm and the majority of the trucks had been checked, loaded, and were being parked across the street in our storage lot.
The rain started to fall really hard as I got into the truck at the dock to drive over to the storage lot. As I started to pull away from the dock, Shorty ran up to the truck and said to let him drive to the lot because I didn’t have a raincoat and he did. I jumped out of the truck and headed toward the back of the dock as he pulled across the street toward the lot. At that moment a tremendous bolt of lightning struck a covered area where we stacked empty cases. Instantaneously the deafening roaring sound as of 100’s of locomotives bore down on us. Everybody tried to find shelter from the terrible destruction around us. One of the drivers who was a WWII veteran of the London Blitz had a flashback and started crying out that we were all going to be killed by the German bombs. We had to hold him down to keep him from running out of the building. Numerous cases of Dr Pepper were sucked out of the plant as the huge roll down doors were as Kleenex being crushed within one’s hand. The boxcars were turned over and sugar was scattered over a wide area. The building groaned as it took the full force of the storm. Thanks for the steel and concrete construction we survived.
As suddenly as the tornado hit, it moved away from us. The terrible roaring sounds ceased and the crying and screams of the survivors could be heard along with the sounds of car horns and emergency vehicles. The women in the office were screaming that a friend who was parked across the street in the alley next to the coffee warehouse was covered up with the collapsed rubble of the warehouse. We made our way through the down power lines and other debris to where the car had last been seen. There wasn’t any sight of the car but we could hear the car horn and a child crying. Immediately we started to dig with our hands toward the crying. After a few minutes we saw the top of the car along with smoke arising from the car. One of the men ran back to the shop and returned with metal cutters. We cut the top away from the smashed car and found the small child behind the driver’s seat. The crying child did not appear to be injured. Next we worked to free the driver who was gravely inured before the smoking car ignited in flames. After pulling the woman from the car and placing her own a makeshift stretcher, several of the men started searching for Shorty. The truck was found partly in the storage lot with the driver’s door standing open. We believed that as the tornado hit, Shorty tried to find safety against the wall of the coffee warehouse. The entire building collapsed upon him. It took several days to retrieve his body. I have often wondered what would have happened had I driven the truck across to the storage lot that fateful day.
The Dr Pepper Museum is located at 300 S. 5th Street in downtown Waco. The Museum is open Monday through Saturday from 10:00 AM until 5:00 PM and Sunday from Noon until 5:00 PM, last ticket sold at 4:15. For more information, visit us on the web at drpeppermuseum.com. To purchase your own
Dr Pepper memorabilia, visit the Museum’s online gift shop.