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A Neighborhood Blown to Nothingness

Disaster: Texas tornado scoured a subdivision, leaving 27 dead, 23 missing.

May 29, 1997|JESSE KATZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

JARRELL, Texas — There is nothing left of Double Creek Estates.

There are no homes. There are no people. There are no trees. In some spots, there are no streets. Everything, even the asphalt, has been sucked from the ground.

"Twisters do crazy things," said Gerald Gower, his eyes swollen and voice cracking. He can only imagine what has become of his 11-year-old son, Brian, a baseball player and model car collector who lived with Gower's ex-wife in what is now a barren field.

"They can't find him, they can't find her and they can't find the house," said Gower, 47, a burly, ponytailed security guard. "There's nothing. Nowhere."

As the tiny central Texas farming community of Jarrell awoke Wednesday after the most horrible day in its history--indeed, after one of the most horrible tornadoes in the state's history--this was the toll: 27 of its 1,000 residents were dead. Another 23 were missing. And Double Creek Estates, a subdivision that once sported 50 sturdy homes of brick and stone, was nowhere to be found.

In its place, there were body parts, torn so violently that coroner's investigators were having difficulty identifying all the victims. There were dead animals--a fallen cow, a severed horse, an impaled bull. There was a garbage can perched atop a telephone pole. And over everything, there was a thick soup of charcoal-colored mud, as if a blender the size of a convention center, swirling at more than 200 mph, had pureed the entire neighborhood, which is pretty close to what actually happened.

"It's hard to believe you're looking at a patch of earth where the life was literally sucked out of it," Gov. George W. Bush said after a helicopter tour of the town about 40 miles north of Austin. He declared it a disaster area and urged Washington to help residents rebuild--a task that the state insurance commissioner estimated would cost upward of $20 million.

Whether the people of Jarrell are even interested is another question. Memories are still fresh from a massive tornado that tore through here in 1989, killing one woman and destroying dozens of homes. What were the chances of lightning striking twice? Or a third time, yet to come?

"My husband said last night that we're going to put up a 'for sale' sign," said Kathleen Tomeff, 42, whose home, less than a mile from the twister's path, was left standing. "It's so freaky. How does God decide who survives and who doesn't?"

Befitting the capriciousness of most tornadoes, Tuesday's deadly storm left virtually all of Jarrell intact. The small downtown, with its hardware store and beauty salon, suffered no damage. The volunteer fire station, similarly unscathed, became a morgue. The school cafeteria was transformed into an emergency dorm. The Jarrell Baptist Church doubled as a counseling center.

Even in the disaster zone, about three miles away, the tornado didn't behave entirely without mercy.

It spared Virginia Davidson, who sought the shelter of her bathtub after spotting the churning funnel roar across the sky. As she huddled in the basin, clutching a blanket over her head, the house "sort of disintegrated around me," she said. Then, "the bathtub and me were lifted."

Everything turned black. "All I felt was movement," said the 43-year-old homemaker. A moment later--seconds? minutes?--she found herself sprawled in the mud. She still had the blanket. But there was no sign of the bathtub. Or her home.

"I've got a few bumps," she mumbled, not seeming to comprehend the magnitude of her flight.

The good fortune of Gabriel Hernandez, on the other hand, had left him nearly unglued.

"When I think about it, I want to cry," said the 35-year-old truck driver, whose wife and three children survived in Double Creek Estates by descending into their storm cellar.

Most homes here don't have basements, given the limestone soil. But Hernandez had been through the '89 tornado, watching his trailer crumble while he and Maria Isabel, then pregnant with their first son, cowered under the bed.

Shaken, he decided to build his own home, adorning it with a 7-by-9-foot subterranean chamber. While he was out hauling cement on Tuesday, his wife and 7-year-old Gabriel, 5-year-old Jimmy and 3-month-old Maribel took advantage of that precautionary design. When they finally emerged--after being trapped for at least half an hour by debris piled atop the cellar door--it was to find that almost all of their neighbors were dead.

"A lot of people say that I'm the most intelligent guy in the whole neighborhood," Hernandez said. "But I think I was the most frightened. That's what saved my family."

On Wednesday, several hundred rescue workers continued to comb through Hernandez's devastated neighborhood. Officials said they hoped to conclude the search by nightfall.

It remained unclear whether the death toll would grow, or whether Double Creek Estates' missing residents would be found, alive and well, somewhere else.

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