Tornado tore through; somehow, my parents' store stood
May 10, 2003
A promotional photo for the commemoration of the Waco tornado 's 50th anniversary brought memories rushing in.
In that photo of the destruction of the old R.T. Dennis Furniture building on the corner of Fifth and Austin is the sign, a few doors down, of my parents' men's clothing store, Harlik's Fine Clothes.
May 11, 1953, changed many lives, including those in our family. I was only 4 and not near the downtown Waco area. But the memories of the stories flood back to me often.
The day had started like many others, with a housekeeper watching me and my twin brother while my mother and father, Sam and Margaret Harelik, worked at their slowly growing men's clothing business in the heart of downtown Waco.
Mom and Dad had purchased the Lowich Brothers operation two years before and were planning to celebrate their second anniversary in business.
In the afternoon, Mom slipped across the street to the Sermas brothers coffee shop, Chris's Cafe, for an afternoon coffee break. As the skies darkened, the brothers suggested that Mom head back to the store to be with Dad.
After entering the store, Mom called the house immediately to check on my brother and me. But at that moment the storm hit with full fury, taking phone and electric lines down.
For a while, she worried that the storm had hit the residential area. Soon she knew that not to be the case. As the R.T. Dennis building caved in, the walls of the buildings down that side of the street fell like dominoes. Miraculously, the Harlik's wall held, though it began to tilt. Rain fell through the roof and winds howled as glass shattered, and the horrible roar drowned out all sounds of normal life.
As the winds died down, an eerie silence replaced it followed by the stark reality that something terrible had occurred. Cries for help and cries of disbelief began to fill the air.
As my parents emerged from what truly was their miraculous shelter of a store, they stared in horror at the destruction: cars covered by brick walls, mounds of debris where stores once stood, bodies lying among the remnants of downtown Waco.
And before them, Chris's Cafe was gone, and their friends, the Sermas brothers, were among the 114 Wacoans who didn't survive what has long been called one of the worst storms in U.S. history.
Mom and Dad did what they could to help in the search for survivors and eventually made their way home to find the house in perfect shape and their twin sons wondering why dinner was going to be so late. Mom and Dad were just glad to have their family together, dinner or not.
Most Waco residents who remember that day back in 1953 still are wary of threatening weather in May. Our family certainly is among those carrying those fears of hostile spring weather; but we also carry gratefulness that Sam and Margaret Harelik survived that storm and still live in Waco, members of the dwindling group of Wacoans who survived their day in the path of a fierce Texas storm.
Harry I. Harelik is executive director of the McLennan Community College Foundation.
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