A Memorable Story of a Tornado

Last updated 2001-01-23

This story is not mine. However, as I regard it as one of the more memorable I've seen, I thought you might enjoy it too. As a pilot and an owner of some tall towers, I have an above-average interest in weather. When I was first handed this article by my father in the early Eighties, I was struck by the detail that the author included. It became clear when I read the explanation; the author was a trained US Army weather observer. His quantitative descriptions make it so much more special--especially for us engineering types.

To ensure that the story is accessible to anyone, not just Mericuns, I have translated their funny units where necessary. The standard units are included in square brackets. However, I've retained the original, shall we say, different punctuation and spelling.

Inside a Texas Tornado

Captain Roy S. Hall, US Army, Retired. The story appeared in Weatherwise, June 1951, starting on page 54.

That warm morning of May 3, 1948, my wife and I were sitting in our back yard making small talk, when suddenly she pointed upward and said, "Look how still those leaves are."

I was startled. The wind was blowing from the south at about 25 miles an hour [40 km/h or 11 m/s], and there could be no reason in such a remark. But when I looked up at the big blackberry tree I saw what she meant. The wind was so steady and dead-level in its pressure that leaves and small branches were pushed before it and held almost motionless, with scarcely a tremor.

"I'm going in," my wife said. "That solid pressure scares me."

After a bit I went in to have a short rest on my cot. I was barely stretched out when a hard clap of thunder brought my feet to the floor with a slam. The ominous silence which follows close thunder got on my nerves, and I walked through the house to the west lawn to have a look at the weather.

Since noon, thunderstorms had been developing to the west and southwest, muttering and grumbling, miles away, but as the three small clouds that showed prospects of rain were 15 miles [24 km] off, and drifting north of the air current, I had given them no more thought. The temperature was in the middle 80s [around 29°C], and the air was very humid.

When I stepped off the front porch one of those little thunderheads almost hit me in the pit of the stomach. It wasn't little any more, but spanned the western sky, black as ink, less than three miles [5 km] away. And right across its nearer rim, low, very low, a mile-long [1,6 km] scud-cloud was sliding along. It was moving swiftly eastward, and the whole cloud had done something I had never heard of before. It had made a right-angle turn in the sky and was cutting across the wind current, which definitely had not slackened. I went to the porch and yelled for my wife.

Back on the lawn I did not know she had come out, till she spoke and scared me. "You sounded urgent, so I hurried the children out... Oh!" She had seen the storm for the first time. "What a terrible cloud!" I looked around and saw our four children standing on the porch. She said nothing further for the moment, but I felt her hand touch my arm in a muted question.

The squall, which was now about two miles away, was coming directly toward us, and the scud-cloud, stretched across its front between 400 and 500 feet [120 and 150 m] above the earth, was revolving as if it were being pushed in reverse along the ground. Behind the scud-cloud a curtain of dark, green rain was falling in a solid, opaque wall.

The south wind was veering. In a matter of a few seconds it had changed, and was blowing, undiminished, from the southeast toward the cloud. Lightning, the most fearful I have ever seen, and wide as a house, flashed with some regularity between the scud-cloud and the ground.

In the comparative stillness following the terrific thunder crashes I could hear a sustained hollow roaring, like a distant freight train. Feeling my wife's eyes on my face, I said, "Sounds like heavy hail." But it wasn't hail. She knew it wasn't, and I did too. While the sound was somewhat similar, there was a vast difference. You can't feel the sound of hail vibrating the air against your ear drums, nor pulsating it against your face. This was a new sound, one we had never heard before.

The low, deadly looking scud-cloud was right on us now, and I could see no sign of a tornado funnel this side of the greenish rain. But it was there, and my wife knew it was there. I told her to go in and take the children. We had no storm cellar, but, had there been a tornado showing, we could have gotten into the car and run out of its path. Now, we had to take a chance on it missing us. It was behind the rain, without question; I had seen them that way.

In another minute the low could passed close overhead, and the dusk of early evening enveloped us. I turned to go in, and as I went up the porch steps hailstones the size of tennis balls began falling on the house and in the yard. These made my heart sink, for they almost invariably fall in the forefront of a tornado. They came down sparsely, one on about each square yard [1 sq m], but they made a most hideous bang and clatter, and I knew some of them were going all the way through our shingled roof. We all went into the west bedroom.

Lightning was striking all around the house now, adding its horror to the fast-rising din. As my wife snapped on the overhead light, a gust of wind and rain hit the west wall of the room with a crash. My wife was pointing to the west wall. "The wall's blown in!" She had to scream to make herself heard. I could see that it had slipped inward six inches [150 mm] or more at the ceiling, and was vibrating under the wind pressure. Drops of water were hitting my face across the room. I tried to assure her. "That gust always comes ahead of a rainsquall," I shouted.

But there was no abatement in the deafening hubbub outside. I knew it was growing in intensity by the second, and realized that a tornado was right on us. I yelled in my wife's ear:

"Everybody in the back room! Get under the bed!"

Under a foolish impulse I jumped to the south window for a last look outside before following the family. As I did so the overhead light went off (3:04 pm [15:04] as shown later by our electric clock). Between the flashes of lightning it was as dark as midnight, but by shielding my eyes I could see somewhat. I saw that my neighbor's house across the vacant lot was standing, but trees and shrubbery out that way were flattened almost to the ground. From the course the planks, sheet-iron and other debris took as they flailed over the lot, I saw that the wind was from due west. It was a grim perspective, but out of it all I gathered a bit of hope.

The wind was from the west! It should have been from the south. While a tornado, as a whole, moves generally eastward, the funnel itself rotates counterclockwise, and the west wind indicated that we were in the southern edge of the twister. It, apparently, was passing just north of us. And too, the vivid lightning and rending crashes were passing on, and there was now a decided lull in the screeching roar outside.

And then very suddenly, when I was in the middle of the room, there was no noise of any kind. It had ceased exactly as if hands had been placed over my ears, cutting off all sound, except for the extraordinary hard pulse beats in my ears and head, a sensation I had never experienced before in my life. But I could still feel the house tremble and shake under the impact of the wind. A little confused, I started over to look out the north door, when I saw it was growing lighter in the room.

The light, though, was so unnatural in appearance that I held the thought for the moment that the house was on fire. The illumination had a peculiar bluish tinge, but I could see plainly. I saw the window curtains lying flat against the ceiling, and saw loose papers and magazines packed in a big wad over the front door. Others were circling about the room, some on the floor and others off it. I came out of my bewilderment enough to make a break for the back of the house.

But I never made it. There came a tremendous jar, the floor slid viciously under my feet, and I was almost thrown down. My hat, which I had not removed, was yanked off my head, and all around objects flashed upward. I sensed that the roof of the house was gone.

As I gained footing another jarring wham caught me, and I found myself on my back over in the fireplace, and the west wall of the room right down on top of me. The "whams" were just that. Instead of being blown inward with a rending crash of timbers, as one would expect of a cyclonic wind, the side of the room came in as if driven by one mighty blow of a gigantic sledge hammer. One moment the wall stood. The next it had been demolished. The destruction had been so instantaneous that I retained no memory of its progress. I was standing, and then I was down, 10 feet [3 m] away. What happened between, I failed to grasp or sense.

By a quirk of fate I was not seriously injured, and as soon as I had my senses about me I clawed up through the wreckage, and crawled around and through the hole where the east door had been. I could tell by the bluish-white light that the roof and ceiling of this room were gone also. I almost ran over my four-year-old daughter, who was coming to see about me. Grabbing her up, I was instantly thrown down on my side by a quick side-shift on the floor. I placed her face down, and leaned above her as a protection against flying debris and falling walls.

I knew the house had been lifted from its foundation, and feared it was being carried through the air. Sitting, facing southward, I saw the wall of the room bulge outward and go down. I saw it go, and felt the shock, but still there was no sound. Somehow, I could not collect my senses enough to crawl to the small, stout back room, six feet [2 m] away, and sat waiting for another of those pile-driver blasts to sweep the rest of the house away.

After a moment or so of this, I became conscious that I was looking at my neighbor's house, standing unharmed 100 feet [30 m] to the south. Beyond I could see others, apparently intact. But above all this, I sensed a vast relief when I saw that we were still on the ground. The house had been jammed back against trees on the east and south and had stopped, partly off its foundation.

The period of relief I experienced, however, was a very short one. Sixty feet [18 m] south of our house something had billowed down from above, and stood fairly motionless, save a slow up-and- down pulsation. It presented a curved face, with the concave part toward me, with a bottom rim that was almost level, and was not moving either toward or away from our house. I was too dumbfounded for a second, even to try to fathom its nature, and then it burst on my rather befuddled brain with a paralyzing shock. It was the lower end of the tornado funnel! I was looking at its inside, and we were, at the moment, within the tornado itself!

The bottom of the rim was about 20 feet [6 m] off the ground, and had doubtless a few moments before destroyed our house as it passed. The interior of the funnel was hollow; the rim itself appearing to be not over 10 feet [3 m] in thickness and, owing possibly to the light within the funnel, appeared perfectly opaque. Its inside was so slick and even that it resembled the interior of a glazed standpipe. The rim had another motion which I was, for a moment, too dazzled to grasp. Presently I did. The whole thing was rotating, shooting past from right to left with incredible velocity.

I lay back on my left elbow, to afford the baby better protection, and looked up. It is possible that in that upward glance my stricken eyes beheld something few have ever seen before and lived to tell about. I was looking far up the interior of a great tornado funnel! It extended upward for over a thousand feet [300 m], and was swaying gently, and bending slowly toward the southeast. Down at the bottom, judging from the circle in front of me, the funnel was about 150 yards [140 m] across. Higher up it was larger, and seemed to be partly filled with a bright cloud, which shimmered like a flourescent light. This brilliant cloud was in the middle of the funnel, not touching the sides, as I recall having seen the walls extending on up outside the cloud.

Up there too, where I could observe both the front and back of the funnel, the terrific whirling could be plainly seen. As the upper portion of the huge pipe swayed over, another phenomenon took place. It looked as if the whole column were composed of rings or layers, and when a higher ring moved on toward the southeast, the ring immediately below slipped over to get back under it. This rippling motion continued on down toward the lower tip.

If there was any debris in the wall of the funnel it was whirling so fast I could not see it. And if there was a vacuum inside the funnel, as is commonly believed, I was not aware of it. I do not recall having any difficulty in breathing, nor did I see any debris rushing up under the rim of the tornado, as there surely would have been had there been a vacuum. I am positive that the shell of the twister was not composed of wreckage, dirt or other debris. Air, it must have been, thrown out into a hollow tube by centrifugal force. But if this is true, why was there no vacuum, and why was the wall opaque?

When the wave-like motion reached the lower tip, the far edge of the funnel was forced downward and jerked toward the southeast. This edge, in passing, touched the roof of my neighbor's house and flicked the building away like a flash of light. Where, an instant before, had stood a recently constructed home, now remained one small room with no roof. The house, as a whole, did not resist the tornado for the fractional part of a second. When the funnel touched it, the building dissolved, the various parts shooting off to the left like sparks from an emery wheel.

During pistol practice in the army, when the light was favorable, I have seen bullets from a .45 pistol flash from gun to target. The bullets had a known velocity of 825 feet per second [251 m/s]. The white planks from the house moved at a speed equal to, if not greater than, those of the bullets, which would establish the velocity of the tornado's rotation close to 600 mph [960 km/h or 267 m/s]. This, I believe, is conservative. My own conviction is that the funnel was spinning faster than the speed of sound, accounting, in some way beyond my knowledge, for the total lack of noise within it.

The very instant the rim of the funnel passed beyond the wreck of the house, long vaporous-appearing streamers, pale blue in color, extended out and upward toward the southeast from each corner of the remaining room. They appeared to be about 20 feet [6 m] long and six inches [150 mm] wide, and after hanging perfectly stationary for a long moment, were suddenly gone.

The peculiar bluish light was now fading, and was gone abruptly. Instantly it was again dark as night. With the darkness my hearing began to come back. I could hear the excited voices of my family in the small back room, six feet [2 m] away, and the crunching jars of heavy objects falling around the house. The tornado had passed. The rear edge was doubtless high off the ground and went over without doing any damage. Quickly, real daylight commenced to spread in the wake of the storm, and how good it did look! And how astonishing! I had come to believe, in those few long minutes, that the tornado had struck in the nighttime. It was now about 3:06 pm [15:06].

Luck was with us that day. The only injuries sustained by the family were a severe gash in my boy's arm and a scalp wound on my own head. The rest of the district did not fare so well. The tornado cut a swath though the southern part of the city, killing and wounding upward of a hundred people, and doing property damage of over five million dollars.

A caption with a photograph says: The author's house after the tornado, looking northwest. The building was moved off its foundations. Captain Hall comments: "Although the tornado set me back financially, I would not trade what I saw for the house and furniture back again." There is also a sketch showing the funnel, based on a drawing by the author.

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