Survivors Remember '79 Tornado on 35th Anniversary

Thirty-five years ago, KFDX Anchor Bill Warren alerted viewers about a massive tornado on the ground southwest of Wichita Falls, and told all residents they should take cover immediately.

At least 13 tornadoes tore through Texoma that day, soon to be labeled the Red River Tornado Outbreak.

The first hit Vernon at 3:50 pm, killing 10 people, and injuring 165 others. Tornadoes also hit Seymour and Waurika and
we're focusing on how some people were able to survive, when split second decisions, and luck meant the difference between life and death.

On April 10th, 1979 in Dean, Billy and Kay Bennett heard the warning about the massive tornado in Wichita Falls, and had gone to their storm shelter outside. When its wooden door at the time was blown off, they thought the end could be near.

"I saw a big old welder just hanging over this door right here, just going around, messing around out there, and I saw our jet boat go up in there and just skimming across the yard. Saw our house just explode," Kay recounted.

The tornado was one of the widest ever recorded and leveled a destructive path 8 miles long in the city. Not far from where it touched down southwest of Memorial Stadium, Harold Ferguson was at Kentucky Fried Chicken at Fairway and Southwest Parkway.

"I saw this huge cloud in the west, and it looked like a funnel. Immediately I realized we were in trouble. It looked like it was coming for us," Ferguson said.

At that moment, Ferguson could think of only one thing-getting back to his wife and kids just down Southwest Parkway, on Hughes Drive.

"All I was hearing was this huge noise really coming up behind me. I almost plowed right into that railing. I finally got into the driveway, and she was standing at this culvert, yelling at me to hurry and get on down here, cause she could see the funnel," Ferguson remembered.

There was just enough time for Ferguson's family to slide into that culvert underneath Hughes while the tornado leveled almost all the homes in its path, leaving the Fergusons and about 20,000 others homeless.

Those like Brenda Johnson who rode it out in a storm shelter where she lived, at the corner of Abbott and Rhea Road, just west of Ben Milam Elementary.

"Once we got out, got out and walked out there, and it was just like, I just looked at it all, and everything was just totally gone. It was just, nothing. You could just see as far, you know, around and stuff. Not a house was standing, maybe a few walls here and there, but it was just flattened. It was just rubble," said Brenda.

"And cars, it looked like somebody was taking, picked up tin cans and crushed them, and then just scattered them all out, thrown them all out. Cars were just, you know, scattered everywhere, upside down, bent, in half and all," she continued.

"Most of the cars that had been in the parking lot seemed to be piled up in a pile over there at Underwood's Barbecue across the street," Chanda Norman said.

After surviving the'64 tornado that hit City View and Sheppard Air Force Base when she was 12, Chanda and her son were caught inside the Safeway on Jacksboro Highway when the next big tornado struck 15 years later.

"We hadn't been in the store maybe 10 minutes when the lights went out and the sirens went on. So, I asked my son, there was no radio in the store, just walk outside, someone pulling up, just ask them what it's saying on the car radio. But, he came back in and said it's big and black and going round and round over by that Midwestern dome," Chanda recalled.

Chanda and her son, and about 30 or 40 others, rushed inside Safeway's walk-in cooler and survived, just about the time the Bennetts were trying to decide if the tornado was going to hit Dean.

It looked like a big thunderstorm coming in. It was just black. Looked like a big dirt cloud coming this way. And, I said, 'What is that?' He said, 'It's all right. It's not going to come this way. In a little while,' he said, 'you'd better call your brother. That's going to hit us,'" said Kay Bennett.

From all of the tornadoes in Texoma that day, about 60 people lost their lives. And, damage just to Wichita Falls came to 300 to 400 million dollars, which still makes this one of the top ten costliest tornadoes in the United States in modern history.

Something else many people remember about that day, were things that can't be logically explained. Brenda Johnson talked about the Coke and Dr. Pepper bottles at her house that had debris floating in them, while the lids were still sealed.

Also, when her dining room table was gone and everything else around it, all of her jewelry that was on the table, was left sitting right there below on the ground.

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