On March 2, 2023, Waco and Baylor students took shelter under a tornado warning for approximately 12 minutes. No damage occurred and the night continued as planned. There was the, now very ordinary and customary, warning of sirens, providing ample time to hide. But, in years past, the Waco community did not. Seventy years ago, on May 11, 1953, a tornado ripped through Waco with no warning, killing 114 people and damaging 196 buildings. Among those 114 were two students and a faculty couple.
On that day, Wacoans and students knew a large storm was passing through town, but they were unaware a large tornado would go straight through bustling downtown Waco, destroying businesses and injuring 600.
Destruction was massive: The R.T. Dennis building collapsed killing 30 people within. Baylor faculty couple Keith and Helen James were at a stoplight right outside the building, its collapse resulted in their immediate deaths. Two Baylor students –– John Porter Neal Jr. and Rev. Cecil Marion Parten –– were working inside when the tornado tore through.
John Porter Neal Jr.’s son, Robert Neal, was 13 months old when his father died in the tornado.
“His death left a big hole in multiple families. He was/is related by blood to many Baylor graduates and many Baylor graduates by marriage,” Robert said.
Today, phones, texts, emails, well-equipped news services, and social media would alert anyone across the globe in a matter of minutes to tragedy.
“Most people on campus (just two miles away) when this happened didn’t even know this was a big event,” Randy Fiedler said. “You had no internet, no media, no cell phones, and at that time in Waco, we were 6 months away form even having a local television station to broadcast the news. There were no tornado sirens or 911 emergency number—it was very primitive compared to the way we look at things today.”
Fiedler, who researched and studied the Waco tornado extensively, said that no one knew the tornado was coming. Even as it continued downtown, there was no visible tunnel cloud for witnesses.
“If you were on campus on that day in 1953, when it happened, you didn’t know a tornado had just hit downtown,” Fiedler said. “I have an aunt who was a pre-med student at Baylor during the storm and she remembers being in the dining room that used to be attached to Burleson Hall, and they were getting ready to eat when the power went out. They used candles to eat, but it wasn’t until people from the downtown area came to campus that they knew what happened.”
Because the tornado did not directly hit Baylor’s campus, the university sustained minimal damage. Trees fell, and the administration took down the spires on Old Main and Burleson Hall due to damage from high winds. The spires were rebuilt in 1975, cosmetically healing the only visible evidence of the tornado left on campus.
On the 50th anniversary of the disaster in 2003, Fiedler had the chance to speak with several survivors who remembered where they were during the storm.
“There were cars mashed two feet flat with people in them,” Dr. Robert G. Packard told Fiedler. “Electric lines were hanging down and popping and water on the streets was six inches deep because it had just rained, so I don’t know why we didn’t all get electrocuted. Gas lines had broken, and if anybody had lit a cigarette, we’d all gone up.”
“Waco looked like a city that had been bombed. Debris was everywhere,” Packard continued.
The city of Waco and the community of Baylor immediately rallied together in response to the tragedy. An estimated 1,000 students worked downtown on the rescue effort.
“Baylor’s ROTC was called out because they wanted to make sure nobody was going to be looting the businesses that had been destroyed,” Fiedler said.
“A lot of cities starting in the 1940s and 50s saw their downtowns start to dwindle and saw the suburbs gaining in popularity. That would have happened anyway, in my opinion, in Waco, but I think the tornado doing so much damage downtown hastened that process of businesses, such as our department stores, moving out of downtown,” Fiedler continued. “I think downtown hasn’t come back until the last 10-15 years.”
While the physical evidence of the tornado disappears with time, the memories of tragedy and horror echo through the city today.
In 2013, the Dr. Pepper Museum hosted a tornado exhibit in honor of the 60th anniversary. Krista Brinser, director of community relations at Baylor External Affairs, said that there is a visible brick “scar” from tornado damage that can still be seen from Mary Ave. today.
“Much like with the Kennedy assassination and with 9/11, I think everyone who was in Waco when that tornado hit, remembers exactly where they were and what they were doing,” Fiedler said. “It was one of those events that was so terrible and magnanimous in that way that they all remember what they were doing.”