ORIGINAL COVERAGE: Tornado hits West Texas city, one dead, 80 Injured


Original Associated Press coverage of the deadly Sweetwater tornado on April 19, 1986

Sweetwater Tornado

Aftermath of a deadly tornado in Sweetwater on April 19, 1986. (Ricky Gumm)

Editor’s Note: This article was written on April 19, 1986, following a deadly tornado that devastated the city of Sweetwater.

SWEETWATER, Texas (AP) – Two tornadoes spawned by fast-moving thunderstorms hit this west Texas city without warning today, killing at least one person, injuring 80 people and causing millions of dollars in damage, authorities said.

Two twisters dipped from the clouds in succession at about 7:30 a.m., came together and cut a swath of destruction a half-mile wide and two miles long, cutting power and some phone lines, said Mayor Rick Rhodes.

It caused extensive damage to businesses and homes and ″some of the apartment complexes that were built on the east side of town have been completely destroyed,″ said Nolan County Sheriff Jim Blackley. ADVERTISEMENT

Authorities started ″a house-to-house search for possible trapped victims,″ said Wendell Rehm of the state Department of Public Safety, adding he did not know how many houses were hit.

Public Safety spokesman David Wells said an 87-year-old man was killed in a retirement community, and 80 people had been injured. Rehm said the injured were taken to Rolling Plains Hospital here and to a hospital in Abilene, 47 miles to the east.

″There’s debris everywhere. The windows are out, buildings are torn down, houses have some of the roofs off them, there’s debris in the streets,″ said Blackley.

Emergency efforts were hampered by power outages, said sheriff’s Deputy Marvin Cole. ″We are working but we are in the dark. All our phone lines are tied up.″ The sheriff added that people were warned not to drink the water because the town filtration plant was without power.

The tornado was ″a total surprise,″ Blackley told Associated Press Radio. ″I believe as it was going down we received a call from the national weather bureau in Abilene, telling us that there was a tornado over Sweetwater.

″But it was already in progress and tearing things up at that time.″

An undetermined number of homes were without power in a 12-block area of the city and water service was cut, officials said.

The damage included a mobile home park, a senior citizens’ housing project and a subdivision, authorities said. Lumber companies opened their yards to help residents board up their windows, officials said.

Two inches of rain preceded the tornado, Cole said.

The National Weather Service said radar also indicated a possible tornado in southern Throckmorton County moving northeast at 40 mph, the weather service said. But Debbie Weaver, a Throckmorton County sheriff’s dispatcher, said no funnels had been spotted.

The weather service reported a possible tornado between Breckenridge in Stephens County and Graham in Young County, between Abilene and Fort Worth. A Palo Pinto County sheriff’s dispatcher said a twister touched down three miles west of Brad, but no injuries were reported.

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