Most of us can recall a story or an experience decades after it happened. It’s true of photojournalists too. Give us a description of the photo and in most cases we will recall the time, light and the feeling we had when we shot the picture.
In 1987, I was a 25 year-old working with the Midland Reporter-Telegram in west Texas. I had worked at the MRT for three years shooting a variety of daily assignments….Texas culture fascinated me, and found the people to be polite and engaging. There were endless pictures to be made, and our photo staff of four meshed well in photographing those stories. We spent a lot of time together; parties, camping, going to movies, just hanging out. It was my family away from home and these three gentlemen left an indelible mark on my life. They were more seasoned than I, and picked up on their love of news within my first month of employment. It was a great place to learn the trade of photojournalism.
From that experience, I embraced spot news and the weather aspect of west Texas. I took to storm chasing very easily. Weather affects us all of course, and was struck by the beauty and raw power of a spring thunderstorm on the southern plains.
On May 22, 1987, I was with my girlfriend shopping at the grocery store for that nights meal. Weather forecasts back then consisted of the back page of the newspaper and the nightly TV news repeating a well worn mantra of a 20% chance of rain, everyday, all year long.
No internet in those days.
That evening, the clouds in Midland were sliding east to west, 180 degrees of normal. I was brooding all day, so I carried my portable police scanner on the shopping trip. I got a roll of the eyes from my girlfriend, but insisted.
At around 8:10pm (while looking for Cheerios) a Skywarn storm spotter broadcast that a tornado was on the ground in Reeves County, 120 miles west and south of Midland. I perked up and forgot about the cereal. The spotter came back and said the twister had dissipated. I still had a gut feeling something was out of place. Six minutes minutes later, the spotter reported a very large wedge tornado on the ground east of the small farming community of Saragosa. I remember the next report, etched in my memory.
“The tornado has hit Saragosa. Oh my god we need help now. We need help, lots of help! ”
Now, the chain of command in a newsroom can be blurry. Usually an editor will tell you to go, respecting a journalists instincts. In this case, I had to drive back to my apartment to make a phone call to the newsroom. The City Editor at the time was unsure whether to go or not, it was out of our circulation area and 120 miles away. I realized it was a big story because of the scanner traffic and knew that every media outlet from Texas (and then some) would be at the disaster by 5am and we would be behind in our coverage. The story needed to be told. Exasperated (couldn’t get a hold of my supervisor) I told him I was going. I’m certain the wheels of insubordination were turning at that moment, but since I was on my day off, I made the personal decision to commit to the story. No harm if the story were to fall through, but that would’ve been just fine if it had happened that way, too many people perished that horrible, destructive night.
It took two hours to drive there. I arrived in Saragosa around 10:30pm and was greeted by utter devastation. Flood lights illuminated the scene, rescuers were everywhere. A EF4 tornado scraped 80 percent of Saragosa in to oblivion. In cruel fate, a Head Start graduation ceremony was being held at the Catholic Hall of Our Lady of Guadalupe Church, the town center. Over 100 people were in inside where 22 men, women and children were killed. Eight others died in the storm. I shot pictures the entire night and well in to the next day, leaving to make an 11pm deadline on May 23. Over the course of the week, I made the 240 mile round trip daily, covering the clean-up and funerals. That August, I was hired by the Press Democrat and never went back to Saragosa.
Last week, while on a storm chasing trip to the central plains, I took a day and visited after 30 years, my first time back.
Jim Gallego is 30 years older now. He remembers the night of May 22, 1987 like it was yesterday. The tornado roared in to Saragosa, ripping into it’s heart. He saw the twister on the flat horizon and immediately realized he needed to get the entire family to safety. Toyah Creek ran under Highway 17 and was just 100 yards from the Gallego residence. Without hesitation, the extended family of 12 sprinted to the creek and wedged themselves under the overpass, the bridge offered the most protection. As the tornado passed over Saragosa, it obliterated the bar and home his father Joe Gallego built in 1959. Passing overhead, the vortex yanked out two of the younger family members who were later found alive. The entire family suffered injuries from airborne debris -scars remain today- but all survived. Today, Jim runs a garage in the small town, who’s population has fluctuated to about 250 people since the tornado struck. He will remain in Saragosa.
Unlike Jim Gallgeo, Peggy and Bob Walker rode out the storm in their stone house south of the Gallego residence. The home was built tough, and stood up well in the tornado. A few walls battled the 200mph winds and won, but the land was stripped bare and their large pecan trees never recovered. It took them a year to recover and rebuild, but declined to use the Red Cross to rebuild. The organization wanted to build a 400 square foot residence, but the Walker’s wanted the same footprint built from the same material. Today, the home has the same stone pattern. Living in to their elder years, they are comfortable with their experience as west Texas natives.
The tornado tore a path of destruction 1/2 mile wide leveling just about everything in its path.
It was purely a fluke that Ernesto Bordayo wasn’t at home when the wind hit. His children got a little too rough with each other and his daughter got clubbed in the head by mistake. After a trip to the doctor with family in tow, Bordayo needed to stop by a field he was tending west of Saragosa to pull pumps out of wells, thinking that rain coming in might flood and damage the pumps. Standing in the field just a few miles away, the Bordayo’s saw the debris field lift and pulverize homes in it’s path, pieces of broken homes falling almost in slow motion from the periphery of the tornado. They hurried home, only to find nothing left. The town was nearly destroyed.
“But by the Grace of God, the tornado didn’t happen when people were sleeping,” says Bordayo “more people would have died.”
A large tornado can drearily re-arrange an area and strip vegetation from the soil and make it unrecognizable. In Saragosa, mesquite trees grow to the size of small houses. Mulberry trees dot the region for shade and native pecan trees can be found throughout Texas. Thirty years after the tornado, I found the trees that survived that night, never made it back.
A week after the tornado ravaged the town, a mass burial took place at the Saragosa cemetery, where most of the tornado victims now rest.