Dad was lost, then found, in tornado's rubble

Jan Johnson

On May 11, 1953, after a regular day as a second-grader at Sanger Avenue Elementary School, my older brother Larry and I heard a tornado warning on the radio. It suddenly stopped raining. What was blustery suddenly became almost calm. We went on the upper deck of our home to see what was happening.

A few minutes later the scariest thing I'd ever seen was passing by, a mile or two in the distance. We ran inside and told our Mom. She tried to call my dad, Dr. E. A. Johnson, whose office was at Fifth Street and Austin Avenue, in the four story R.T. Dennis building. The phones were inoperative. After the storm passed, we got in the car and drove to his office. About three blocks away we could see that his building and others had collapsed. Debris filled the street.

Dad was buried in the rubble for 12 hours or more before he was rescued. His long-time nurse was killed, as were 113 others throughout Waco. Although he received more than 100 sutures to close his injuries, he did not suffer any permanent injuries.

He didn't talk much about it, but I remember him telling me he heard a loud, train-like noise, went to the front door of his first-floor office and saw the tornado hit a few seconds later. As the four-story building caved in, he fell with the debris and was trapped in the basement, about 20 yards behind the door. He could hear the rescuers above him and knew it was going to be awhile before they could dig him out. Fort Hood soldiers were sent to Waco to help with the rescue.

It was the next day before all of the injured and killed were found. The focus then centered on finding a container of radium from my dad's office that had been used occasionally for sinus treatments. It was like looking for a needle in a haystack, but the container had to be found. It was found a day or so later and, fortunately, was intact. (The danger of radioactive isotopes was known in 1953, but not the danger of X-rays and nuclear medicine and the resultant safety measures that are in place today.)

This was terrifying for a 7-year-old, but I was happy to see my dad again. He lived for 22 more years, passing away in 1975. The only item that remains today from his office is his old microscope that survived the tornado. It sits on a memory shelf in my home.

Jan Johnson was a pilot for Southwest Airlines, retiring in 2005. Since retirement, he has been on the staff at Faith Bible Church in the Woodlands, and is the Community Outreach Pastor.

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