Texas Brazos Trail Region

Participant in the Texas Historical Commission's
Texas Heritage Trails Program

The 1953 Waco Tornado

According to an old Huaco Native American legend, tornadoes could not touch down in Waco. Most storms in the area travel from west to east and split around the Waco area due to the bluffs around the Brazos River, making tornadoes and extreme weather relatively rare and mild in the city. The 1953 storm, however, traveled against the prevailing winds, and the tornado approached Waco from the south-southwest.

Due to a thunderstorm that was pounding the city with rain, the people of Waco were packed into department stores, banks, and other downtown buildings.

Located on Fifth Street, the five-story Dennis Building was quickly filling up with people who came in to escape the rain. When the tornado struck, it first knocked a large water tank off the roof, then proceeded to blow in the windows onto the terrified customers and employees. Beatrice Ramirez, an employee just one year out of high school, stood still knowing that there was nowhere safe to hide. Ten seconds after the tornado struck, the building was destroyed, leaving dozens of people trapped beneath its ruins. Beatrice was able to crawl out of the rubble into the rain. Many others would not be so lucky that day - twenty-two people died in the Dennis Building alone. Remarkably, eighteen hours after the rescue efforts started and all hope had been lost, rescue workers recovered a survivor: Lillie Matkin, who was a switchboard operator for the store, was saved by a mattress that fell on her.

The tornado's next target was the ten-story Professional Building. The windows were blown out and the roof was taken off. One woman had a very lucky escape from death. Right before the tornado hit, the rain calmed down and Bobbye Bishop decided to make a dash to her car. She reached the car just as the tornado struck. Her car was thrown up into the air, and then fell back to the ground. Seconds later a two-ton vehicle was thrown on top of her car, pinning her inside it. Due to the weight of both vehicles, the tornado was unable to lift her car and she was also protected by flying debris due to the being pinned inside.

Twelve people were killed in cars crushed in the street, one of which was crushed by a traffic light only 18 inches (460 mm) in height. The Dr Pepper bottling plant, today the Dr Pepper Museum, was severely damaged.

Bricks from the collapsed structures piled up in the street to a depth of five feet. Some survivors were trapped under rubble for fourteen or more hours, and it took several days to remove the bodies from the rubble.

114 people were killed in the Waco area, with 597 injured and up to $41.2 million in property damage. 196 businesses and factories were destroyed, 217 sustained major damage, and 179 sustained lesser damages. 150 homes were destroyed, 250 sustained major damage, and 450 sustained lesser damages. Over 2000 cars were damaged or destroyed and the First United Methodist Church was severely damaged. Over half the dead - 61 - were in a single city block bounded by 4th and 5th streets and Austin and Franklin avenues.

The Waco Tornado remains tied with the 1902 Goliad Tornado as the deadliest in Texas history and the eleventh-deadliest in US history. The storm was one of the primary factors spurring development of a nationwide severe weather warning system.

Return to Our Stories