I didn’t really realize it at the time, but Granddad would have only been ten years old that stormy night in 1909, and the horrible tragedy obviously made such a huge impression on him that decades later (when he was 100) he was still able to paint a visual for me that I’ve never forgotten.
In my mind, I can still see the train cars sent to Zephyr to take the injured to hospitals. I can also still see the mangled and twisted little community filled with more suffering and death than could be easily comprehended. Although there have certainly been larger tragedies today in terms of people injured and killed, to a little boy whose world was very small in 1909, the Zephyr Tornado was a monster never to forget.
The setting was May 30, and it was night; therefore, the little hamlet was covered in darkness so that it was very easy for the monster to catch the town unaware as it swooped from the sky, making a direct hit on the residents of Zephyr.
Over fifty structures were demolished immediately from the force of the tornado while the lightning that accompanied the storm set off a fire that destroyed at least a block of businesses. According to my grandfather, there was no one to fight the fire anyway since almost everyone in the town was either killed, injured, or blown miles away from the scene.
Those who were lucky enough to have escaped injury groped their way through the darkness, trying to locate and give aid to those who were injured but alive.
Finally, word was received in Brownwood of the tragedy, and a train loaded with volunteers and some medical personnel sped to the little town. Apparently, those on board arrived to witness a scene of which none could later easily describe without breaking into tears.
At the time of the tornado, my great-grandparents and their family lived in the Hasse area. As the train carrying the worst of the injured passed through heading to Scott and White Hospital in Temple, my great-grandmother, Mary Swearingin Davis, climbed aboard to help render at least some comfort on what had to be a terribly long, bumpy ride for injured bodies to bear.
I never asked my grandfather (Why is it we never remember to get all of the answers?), but I can’t imagine that his family would have loaded into a farm wagon and made what would have been a very long trip to Zephyr so I assume his very vivid memories are secondhand or were told to him as they were related to his mother by the victims.
All I know is that he claimed that the morning light found twisted and mangled bodies all over the landscape of Zephyr, some blown as far as two or three miles from the town. Many survivors were naked as they walked the streets in shock, looking for “their people.”
With no way to contact the rest of the world for hours, and without television cameras on the scene immediately, how alone those poor people must have felt, and how horrific the stories that began to make their way to the surrounding countryside must have been to still weigh upon the mind of a man who had passed the century mark still able to relate the tale of the night “Zephyr blew away.”