Death toll reaches 6 in North Texas tornadoes

Posted Friday, May. 17, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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A black-and-white dog, heavy with milk, wanders from one pile of debris to another, sniffing, searching for her lost pups.

Trees are twisted or snapped, stripped of branches and leaves, littered with clothing and pieces of metal roofs.

In some spots, concrete slabs are the only evidence that someone used to call this place home.

Many houses are now piles of rubble, destroyed by Wednesday night’s wicked tornado, which transformed the Rancho Brazos Estates subdivision into a uninhabitable wasteland.

Six people were killed in the tornado — the deadliest in Dallas-Fort Worth since 1957 — and dozens more were injured. Seven people are still unaccounted for, according to Hood County Sheriff Roger Deeds, but he thinks they will be found “alive and well.”

Some of those visiting the damaged area Thursday were stunned that more people weren’t killed.

“The good Lord was busy last night,” Red Cross volunteer Ray Fishercord said. “Most of the homes had people in them when the tornado hit, and most of the people said they couldn’t believe what happened. The American Legion Hall at the bottom of the hill looked like a triage scene from M*A*S*H.”

The tornado, rated an EF4 by the National Weather Service, was packing winds of 166 to 200 mph when it slammed into the subdivision, a mix of framed and mobile homes southeast of Granbury.

Many of the homes damaged or destroyed had been built by Habitat for Humanity, a faith-based nonprofit that provides houses for low-income families.

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

Damage estimates showed that 19 buildings were destroyed, 17 have major damage and 30 have minor damage. Additionally, 17 mobile homes were destroyed. The neighborhood remains closed to its residents.

‘Please, God! Please, God!’

At home with her husband and three children Wednesday night, Amanda Hernandez said she 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, and Hernandez moved her three children to a closet as a precaution. Authorities say that sirens were sounded 15 minutes before the tornado hit and that an automated text message system was also used to warn residents of the twister.

Minutes later the power went out. Hail peppered the house. Then, Hernandez recalled, the dreaded sound of an approaching train.

“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 members emerged to find an alien world where their neighborhood of five years had stood the last time they saw it.

The tornado left a path of destruction about 100 yards wide and a mile long. Debris was piled and strewn everywhere. Trees had been turned into missiles, piercing cars, doors and walls.

“You could see across where houses were supposed to be,” said Hernandez, whose house lost half its roof. “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 Department on 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.

“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.”

Some still hospitalized

Deeds said that the six people killed in Rancho Brazos were all adults, four men and two women. They were identified as Robert H. Whitehead, about 60; Glenda Whitehead, age unknown; Jose Tovar Alvarez, 34; Leo Stefanski, 83; Tommy Martin, 61; and Marjari Davis, about 82.

More than 50 people were injured, and at least 30 of them were taken to hospitals in DFW.

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

Patients from Rancho Brazos and Cleburne were taken to Texas Health Harris Methodist Hospital Fort Worth. Six were treated and released, and two remained in critical condition, according to the hospital.

Three patients were admitted to Lake Granbury Medical Center, mostly with broken bones, and 19 were treated and released, according to a news release.

At an earlier news conference, Deeds said 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 a new home Saturday, Deeds said. He didn’t know whether that house was spared.

“One of our neighborhoods was devastated,” said Amy Parham, executive director of Habitat for Humanity of Texas, who traveled to Hood County on Thursday to survey the damage. “… But we have faith. Texas looks after Texans. We have faith that we will come together. This is a long-term project.”

Deeds said search-and-rescue teams continued to sift through the rubble Thursday. Cadaver dogs were brought in about noon.

‘It was horrible’

Before the tornado hit, Arlena Sherman and Allacia Jenny stood outside their homes in Rancho Brazos, oblivious to what was about to happen.

“I was standing there watching the clouds roll in,” said Sherman, who then went back inside. “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.

Hours after the storm passed, they were standing in a strip shopping center still trying to find their friends. Most were found, but she fears that one friend is among the dead and that another may be paralyzed.

At the Lake Granbury Medical Center, Rancho Brazos residents came looking for their relatives.

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

The Red Cross set up two 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 22 people remained at the First Christian shelter Thursday. The shelter at the Methodist church has closed.

‘We dodged a bullet’

The Rancho Brazos tornado was one of at least 16 confirmed across North Texas on Wednesday night, starting in Montague County. Tornadoes were also confirmed in Wise, Parker, Hood, Johnson, Mills, Hamilton and Ellis counties.

Numerous homes were destroyed in Cleburne, where an EF3 tornado hit, but no fatalities were reported there or in other damaged areas, officials said.

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

Parker County officials said one or two trailer homes were toppled in the Millsap area.

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

The first tornado was spotted in Montague County about 5:30 p.m., and the last was reported at 12:10 a.m. in Ennis, the weather service said.

Most were EF1 tornadoes with peak winds no higher than 100 mph.

In Ennis, about 17 structures were damaged, among them four houses left uninhabitable, according to preliminary reports. Fifty-five businesses were damaged, including 20 severely, according to reports.

The weather service was to send a damage-surveying team to northwest Cresson today in southern Parker County.

No information was available late Thursday about brief tornadoes in Mills and Hamilton counties, the weather service said.

Harold Brooks, a meteorologist at the weather service’s severe-storm lab in Norman, Okla., said May 15 was the latest into the month that a signifcant tornado has occurred in the United States. Brooks said he would expect 2013 to be one of the least-lethal tornado years since the agency started keeping records in 1954.

‘They can’t catch her’

Back at Rancho Brazos, Red Cross volunteers were preparing to provide residents with tools to dig through the rubble for family possessions.

First responders doing search and rescue marked houses with X’s and O’s to show whether they had been searched and whether bodies had been found. If a pet was found, that was noted as well.

When they saw the lonely black-and-white dog looking for her pups, Hood County sheriff’s deputies and other first responders tried to coax her to safety, but she would have no part of it.

“They can’t catch her,” one of the deputies said. “They’ve been trying since this morning, and she won’t let anyone get close enough.”

Staff writers Bill Hanna, Bill Miller and Domingo Ramirez Jr. contributed to this report, which includes material from The Associated Press.

Terry Evans, 817-390-7620 Twitter: @fwstevans Patrick Walker, 817-390-7423 Twitter: @patrickmwalker1

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