Fort Worth man recounts surviving tornado that hit downtown in 2000
On March 28, 2000, Robert Brownrigg and his wife Melanie, were working late in the Mallick Tower on Summit Avenue when the skies began to darken.
There had been concerns about severe weather and a tornado watch had been issued several hours earlier at 2:53 p.m.
At 6:10 p.m., a tornado warning was issued and, a minute later, the sirens sounded. At 6:22 p.m., a tornado was spotted near the Montgomery Ward building along West Seventh Street. It was headed toward downtown.
“I looked out the window, the rain was going sideways,” Robert Brownrigg said. “You could tell this was going to be an ugly storm.”
In the office next door, Mark Sullivan was also working late. He had talked with his wife on the phone about a possible tornado.
“I didn’t see any tornado,” Sullivan said. “But I saw leaves, twigs and branches going straight from right to left. About this time, Robert said ‘We’re in the debris field.’”
Sullivan and the Brownriggs raced inside the concrete stairwell just as the tornado hit. Over the next minute or so, they made their way down from the 10th floor guided only by flashlight as doors swung out from the floors below.
“I’m going around the corner thinking we’re going to be sucked out,” Sullivan said.
Just as abruptly as it arrived, the F2 tornado departed. They opened the door, and looked out at the devastation on the seventh floor.
“The glass was gone, the walls were gone, the windows were gone,” Sullivan said. “It looked like Beirut after the bombings.”
The Brownriggs and Sullivan had been caught in what would become known as the Fort Worth tornado. The same storm would also produce an F3 tornado in Arlington.
The tornado killed two people in Fort Worth and caused $400 million in damage, making it the 21st costliest storm in Texas, according to the Insurance Council of Texas.
The tornado crushed homes in the Linwood neighborhood and pummeled a warehouse behind the Montgomery Ward building.
Then it moved east, hitting smaller structures such as the Sweet Shop before jumping the Clear Fork of the Trinity River and slamming into the Cash America Building, Calvary Cathedral, Mallick Tower and the Bank One building as it lifted off the ground. Numerous other buildings along West Seventh and downtown also sustained damage.
“I think by the next morning we pretty much understood the scale of the damage that had occurred,” said former Fort Worth Mayor Kenneth Barr.
Initially 20 to 25 blocks of downtown were closed as concerns about falling glass from downtown skyscrapers continued.
But the storm also provided an opportunity.
It may not have caused the redevelopment along the West Seventh corridor but it certainly added momentum to the effort.
“I think it gave us an opportunity we probably wouldn’t have had,” said Fort Worth architect and urban planner Phillip Poole, who heads TownSite, a real estate development firm that has done projects on the west side and Near Southside of Fort Worth.
And the area has soared in value.
The assessed the value of the storm-damaged areas of downtown and the Cultural District have increased 359 percent from 2000 to 2018, from $1.63 billion to $7.48 billion, according to the Tarrant Appraisal District.
“Nobody wants to experience a tornado but the destruction of that tornado forced people to think differently about redevelopment,” said assistant cty manager Fernando Costa.
The Bank One building downtown was the biggest symbol of the tornado, as it sat empty for several years covered in plywood.
“The fire department was concerned that it was a significant fire hazard,” Barr said. “Getting the building either torn down or back into a productive use was critical.”
Fort Worth billionaire Ed Bass, through Block 82 partners, bought the building in March 2001 and intended to tear it down until demolition and asbestos removal costs became too expensive, according to Star-Telegram archives.
“It was a big eyesore and a very prominent feature in the downtown skyline and yet it was not practical to demolish it,” Costa said. “Fortunately, a solution emerged to save the building by reconfiguring it.”
“Before The Tower, experts tended to be skeptical about whether anyone would want to buy a condominium in downtown Fort Worth,” Costa said. “When The Tower opened, lines stretched around the block.”
Though it wasn’t hit by the tornado, plans to tear down the old Ripley-Arnold public housing project and build a new Radio Shack corporate campus — now Tarrant County College’s Trinity River campus — also helped persuade investors that downtown was ripe for residential housing, Barr said.
The Calvary Cathedral site would become home to the Pier 1 Imports Building. The Cash America building and Mallick Tower would be renovated.
The Linwood neighborhood would slowly transform into town homes and apartments but a few of the simple wood-frame homes remain.
And the developments along West Seventh would keep coming.
“I think overall it’s a good thing,” said Fort Worth architect John Roberts, who runs the fortwortharchitecture.com website.
Roberts was unwittingly caught in the tornado while attending a meeting at the Sanger Building, where he was forced to take cover as the windows blew out of what was then the Modern at Sundance Square.
“I think it probably would have happened without the tornado but maybe not as rapidly as it did,” Roberts said, referring to the development. “There are parts of it I like and parts that I don’t but that’s always the case.”