Survivors tell of terrifying Granbury tornado

Posted Thursday, May. 16, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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How to help, get assistance Donations can be made through the American Red Cross at www.redcross.org/tx/dallas-fort-worth Persons needing assistance from the Red Cross should call 817-335-9137. The Tarrant County Food Bank will have a food pantry set up for people needing assistance from 9-11:30 a.m. Saturday at First United Methodist Church, 301 Loop 567. Donations of material items can be made to Mission Granbury. Call 817-614-2556 to make arrangements for donations. Source: Hood County Sheriff’s Office

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At home with her husband and three children Wednesday night, Amanda Hernandez wasn’t alarmed when TV stations broke in to warn viewers about the developing storms.

“We were getting warnings,” she said Thursday morning at First Christian Church in Granbury, where Red Cross workers had set up an assistance center and shelter. “But I wasn’t really worried.”

Then the tornado sirens went off near the family’s manufactured home in Rancho Brazos Estates, a small subdivision southeast of Granbury. Hernandez decided to move her three children to a closet as a precaution.

Minutes later the power went out. Hail peppered the house. Then, Hernandez recalled, the dreaded sound of an approaching train, an EF-4 tornado packing wind speeds of between 166 and 200 mph.

“It seemed like it lasted for an hour,” she said of those tense moments in the dark closet. Her 11-year-old daughter cried out in terror, “Please, God! Please, God!”

Her boys, ages 7 and 2, sat in frightened silence.

When calm returned, the family emerged to find an alien world where their neighborhood of five years had stood the last time they saw it.

Debris was piled and strewn everywhere. Half of their roof was gone.

The tornado left a path of destruction about 100 yards wide and a mile long. Six people were killed and dozens more were injured. Seven people were still unaccounted for Thursday morning, officials said.

“You could see across where houses were supposed to be,” Hernandez said. “Lots of people were bleeding. Some of them were hurt pretty bad.”

The family stayed with her sister Wednesday night, but she doesn’t know what will happen next.

“We didn’t have insurance,” Hernandez said. “I don’t know what we’re going to do.”

Paul Justice was busy cooking dinner when the tornado hit. He was at the Hood County Sheriff’s Office Thursday morning asking when he could go back in. He was concerned because he hadn’t turned off the stove and his wife had left the iron on as well.

“People were walking around dazed, covered with dirt and debris,” said Justice, 62. “I saw two ladies bundled up. One couldn’t walk, so we put her into a pickup. They were going to try and get her to a hospital.”

The tornado was one of at least 13 confirmed across North Texas Wednesday night in a series of storm systems that marched across Montague, Palo Pinto, Parker, Hood and Johnson counties.

Numerous homes were also destroyed in Cleburne where an EF-3 tornado hit, but no fatalities were reported there or in other damaged areas, officials said.

Hood County Sheriff Roger Deeds said that the six people killed in Rancho Brazos were all adults. They have not been identified, he said.

More than 50 people were injured, with at least 30 being transported to hospitals in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.

Five of those patients remained at John Peter Smith Hospital in Fort Worth Thursday morning, with three in serious condition and two in good condition, said Kristen Newcomer, a JPS spokeswoman. Six others were treated and released.

At an earlier news conference, Deeds said that 18 bulldozers went into the area “to get people in and get people out.”

Some of the dead were found inside houses, some outside, he said.

The neighborhood has 110 homes, and during the last five years much of the construction has been by Habitat for Humanity. A family was scheduled to move into their new home on Saturday, Deeds said. He didn’t know if that house was spared.

“Most of the neighborhood is heavily damaged to destroyed,” Deeds said. “Very little is untouched.”

Damage estimates released Thursday afternoon showed that 19 buildings were destroyed, 17 have major damage and 30 have minor damage. Additionally, 17 mobile homes were destroyed.

He said that search-and-rescue teams continued to pick through the rubble Thursday morning. Cadaver dogs were being brought in about noon.

As the sun rose Thursday morning, the intensity of the tornado became more clear. Some houses were ripped off their foundations, others had roofs ripped off and windows blown out. One home that lost its roof still had a clothes closet intact.

Trees were splintered and stripped of branches and leaves. Cars and trucks were beaten and battered.

At Justice’s home, a tree was thrown through an upstairs window, landing in his wife’s workroom.

‘It was horrible’

Earlier Wednesday, Arlena Sherman and Allacia Jenny stood outside their homes in Rancho Brazos, oblivious to what was about to hit them.

“I was standing there watching the clouds roll in,” Sherman said. “I didn’t have a clue.”

Seconds later, at about 8 p.m., the twister hit.

When Sherman stepped outside, she saw destruction all around her.

“Oh my God, it was horrible,” Sherman said. “Our houses were OK. I think the trees protected them but as we walked away, places were just gone.”

Hours after the storm passed, they were standing in a strip shopping center still trying to find their friends.

“We haven’t found them,” Jenny said. “We don’t know where they are. We’ve called hospitals. We’ve called friends. We just can’t find them.”

It was a similar story at the Lake Granbury Medical Center where Rancho Brazos residents searched for their relatives.

“We don’t know if he’s here or in Fort Worth,” said David Spanier as he looked for his cousin. “We know he survived. We just don’t where he is.”

Matt Zavadsky, a MedStar spokesman, said the Fort Worth-based service was ferrying 17 patients to Fort Worth hospitals. Three were taken in three ambulances because they were in critical condition. The other 14 were on MedStar’s new bus-size ambulance, the AMBUS, he said.

The Red Cross reported that it was setting up shelters in Granbury, one at the First Christian Church, 2109 W. U.S. 377, the other at the First United Methodist Church, 301 Loop 567.

Deeds said that 22 people remained at the First Christian shelter Thursday morning. The shelter at the Methodist church has closed.

In Johnson County

Meanwhile to the east, the storm system was making trouble for Cleburne residents.

Social media furiously churned reports of a “mile-wide” funnel cloud in Johnson County. Weather Service meteorologist Mark Fox said that if the tornado wasn’t actually that big, “it was close.”

It was not the same twister that hit Granbury, Fox said.

“Power flashes” were seen on the south side of Cleburne and 80 mph winds were reported, he said.

The storm tracked northeast across Lake Cleburne; neighborhoods on the southeast side of the lake were hardest hit, and some were flattened.

"A couple families were trapped in their homes," Mayor Scott Cain said.

They were rescued, but first responders searched through the night, door to door, in case anyone else was trapped. Johnson County Sheriff's officials did likewise in rural areas in the county.

There were no deaths as of midday Thursday, and although people were taken to hospitals, none of the injuries appeared to be life-threatening.

"No one is missing that we know of," Cain said. "So far it's not as bad as it could have been."

Still, people whose homes were struck were struggling to clear downed trees and cover punctured roofs, or roofs gone entirely. An army of utility crews from Oncor Electric Delivery worked to restore power.

As of 11 a.m. Thursday, an estimated 13,000 customers were without power in the Fort Worth/Dallas area, an Oncor official said. Most of the power outages were caused by the storms that knocked down poles and downed power lines.

Oncor spokeswoman Anna Kurian said Thursday that power was out to about 4,000 customers in the Cleburne area.

“Crews are out now working as quickly as possible,” Kurian said. She noted that 19,000 customers were without power at 4 a.m. Thursday, and it was down to 13,000.

Much of the city seemed unscathed by the onslaught, although standing water remained in ditches and dips.

But a drive along Nolan River Road in southwest Cleburne revealed a different story.

Neighborhoods along Lakeshore Drive were "like a war zone," Cain said.

A command post was set up at Lowell Smith Jr. Middle School on nearby Country Club Road, but the campus was otherwise empty. A pickup truck was in the parking lot, flipped on its roof.

A light pole had been blown off its concrete base.

The winds' fury was also made clear by a large shipping container that was used to store athletic equipment. It had been scooped up from where it was parked near the football field and thrown about 100 yards into the back of the school.

Fire Department Lt. L.B. Easden, president of the local school board, said many of the air-conditioning units atop the school were peeled away, which allowed heavy rain to pour into the building.

He said fire department crews were staging in the southwest part of the city.

"We expect a few fires when the power comes back on because of the wiring damage," he said.

Lighting up the radar

The tornado was part of a system of thunderstorms that spawned at least 10 tornadoes and dropped large hail across North Texas.

It was a typical setup for spring storms, Fox said. Moist air from the Gulf of Mexico was in place, and an upper-level disturbance ignited a prime area of storm development between Wichita Falls and Fort Worth.

“Some discreet cells became tornadic very quickly,” Fox said.

The storms, packing lightning, large hail and powerful winds, sparked fiery-red images on weather service radar.

Winds were fierce, said Matt Bishop, a weather service meteorologist.

“We’re getting radar signatures of 80 to 100 miles,” Bishop said shortly before 8 p.m. Wednesday. “Those are gate-to-gate shear signatures on radar. But no one’s out there clocking winds right now.”

Hail as large as grapefruit pelted the area around Mineral Wells. A dispatcher reported only minor damage.

In Wise County, a funnel cloud was spotted touching down about 8 p.m., 7 miles northeast of Decatur, off County Road 2323.

‘Take shelter now!’

The earliest confirmed tornado was spotted about 7:20 p.m. near a truck stop on Interstate 20, about 10 miles west of Weatherford, the weather service reported.

The tornado actually touched down in Millsap, which is about 15 miles west of Weatherford.

“Spotters said that a tornado was on the ground there,” said Parker County Sheriff Larry Fowler on Thursday.

Roofs from two homes were blown away, said Millsap City Manager Mark Barnes, but no injuries were reported.

Parker County officials also noted that one or two trailer homes were toppled by a tornado in the Millsap area.

“We dodged a bullet,” said Joel Kertok, with Parker County emergency management.

Storm survey teams were out Thursday to determine how many tornadoes hit North Texas on Wednesday, said Jessie Moore, a meterologist with the National Weather Service in Fort Worth.

Teams will be in Hood, Johnson, Ellis, Parker and Montague counties to survey damages.

Staff writers Bill Hanna and Bill Miller contributed to this report.

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