Tornado Recollections 25 years
later - published in the Kalamazoo Gazette May, 2005
Some of the letters published follow:
Airborne wife tops daughter's
story of encounter with tornado
My daughter Kelly was
taking driver's training when she drove through the tornado on West
Here's her recollection:
"I was the last
of three students to drive. I started out with perfect spring like weather,
then all of a sudden, blinding rain, strong winds and flying debris.
My fellow classmates were screaming in the back seat of the car as Gilbert
H. instructed me to keep driving and to have everyone roll down the
windows. It was only minutes, but seemed like hours, driving back toward
Kalamazoo Central High School. Mr. H. guided me through falling limbs
and trees, downed power lines, pieces of houses flying around us. I
felt like the car was going to be airborne. In a few moments it was
over, and the sun was shining. We were all speechless. When we arrived
at K-Central, Mr. H. jumped out of the car and approached my father
speechless, but patient as he told my father of my 'bravery.' I now
wonder why he didn't just say, 'Pull over, let me drive.'"
we finally arrived home, there was my wife lying on the couch, white
as a ghost. The first thing I said was: "Wait until Kelly tells you
about the tornado that she had to drive through, you won't believe it!"
My wife said: "Wait until I tell you what I drove through!"
wife, Toni, was working for Michigan Bell Telephone Co., and she was
driving back to the office from a customer call on North Westnedge Avenue.
When she got to the corner of Westnedge and Michigan avenues next to
St. Augustine School, she stopped at a red light. All of a sudden her
car was lifted in the air several feet onto Michigan. When the car finally
came to rest, she saw another car against a telephone pole. She knew
that she had to get out of there and drove to the first street not blocked
by debris. Afterward, we found pink insulation in every crevice and
under the hood of the car. This insulation obviously came from the tremendous
impact to the school.
-- Don K.
Taking cover at
The bells rang 20 times, the signal at The Upjohn
Co. that a tornado was coming. Since no tornado drill was planned and
the sky was inky black, we assumed this was no drill. I headed to the
stairs and the basement. As I reached the ground-floor landing, the
exit doors opened wide all by themselves. I figured the tornado was
very close. The indoor air pressure had pushed the doors open in response
to the negative air pressure from the tornado.
In a few minutes,
the all-clear signal sounded. We came up and looked outside. Insulation
was hanging from damaged windows. The ground around the downtown campus
was littered with official-looking pieces of paper -- which, it was
later rumored, had been sucked out of a bank building on the east end
of Bronson Park.
One employee was in his car when the tornado
passed. He flattened himself on the car floor and the car windows imploded
in on him. Another employee was on the phone while sitting in his sixth-floor
office. His boss kept talking until the employee finally told him that
a tornado was coming and he had to hang up. As he ran from his office,
he saw the wall on the east end of the Gilmore's building had just collapsed.
Escape to Hepp's
a junior at Loy Norrix High School working after school at Hepp's store.
I worked on the second and third floors where the stock was stored.
After the tornado, the third floor ceased to exist, as did half of the
The sirens were the first thing to get our attention.
I recall the employees huddled around a small radio. My fellow stock
boy, Fritz, was an interesting fellow who used to tell me of his days
following the Grateful Dead around the country. It was Fritz who deduced
before anyone else that we were about to get plastered by a tornado.
I vividly remember him running through the store, yelling at the top
of his lungs, "It's a ... tornado, get downstairs, a tornado, a tornado!"
Many did follow him downstairs and I often wonder if he saved anyone's
life or prevented serious injury.
An approaching tornado does
indeed sound like a freight train. The roar just builds and builds until
your ears pop, then everything goes silent. The front of Hepp's faced
East Michigan Avenue and was all glass. I did not follow Fritz's warning
immediately and was the last person to make it to the basement. The
steps leading to the basement were next to the front windows. Getting
to that stairway was like wading upstream against a torrential current.
Once I made it to the stairway, I made it down in about two steps. About
the time I hit the ground with a thud, the plate-glass window exploded.
There were shards of glass shot in every direction like tiny shrapnel
from a grenade. Although several people were cut and bleeding, there
were no life-threatening injuries.
I remember walking out onto
East Michigan and viewing the destruction. Buildings were destroyed
and debris was everywhere. I also remember the spirit and generosity
of my fellow Kalamazooans in the days and weeks that followed. It is
that spirit that the tornado brought out that I will never forget.
Bronson trees as fuel
was working at the Kalamazoo Police Department headquarters when the
dispatch center received confirmation that a tornado was approaching
Kalamazoo. An officer sent to the western limits of the city excitedly
called out its path of travel, naming each side street the swath of
destruction was crossing.
At the same time, two downtown beat
officers had made their way to the roof of what is now the Radisson
hotel, and radioed they could see the funnel cloud approaching the heart
of downtown. They reported massive amounts of debris swirling skyward,
and just before the gymnasium of St. Augustine School was flattened,
they retreated to seek cover.
Everyone inside the three-story
police headquarters building at Rose and Lovell streets was ordered
into the basement. We could hear and feel the low rumbling of the tornado
barely a block away as it ripped its way through downtown.
raced up from the basement, then outside. Almost every window in the
10-story, glass-sided Industrial State Bank building was gone or broken.
City streets were blocked by mounds of debris, overturned or rearranged
cars, and massive trees that had shaded Bronson Park.
I was the
first to reach a motorcyclist who was on Rose Street when a giant Bronson
Park oak tree crashed down upon him. It was soon sadly obvious this
man was one of the storm's fatalities.
To my amazement, everyone
in the Industrial State Bank building survived the direct hit of the
tornado. Several people had visible cuts and bruises, but everyone was
able to walk out.
When I got to the Kalamazoo Building at Michigan
Avenue and the Kalamazoo Mall, dazed and injured people were wandering
out of the building. I entered and found a businessman whose white shirt
was half soaked with blood. He appeared to have a broken arm, and seemed
to be in shock. He didn't know where to go. I used the man's necktie
to immobilize his injured arm.
On the Kalamazoo Mall there was
a small playground. A three-axle commercial truck was on its side, just
inches from the swing set. A witness told me two children were actually
using the swing set when the truck was blown over. Somehow, they escaped
Afterward, when I eventually got a day off, I brought
my chain saw and pickup truck to Bronson Park. City crews were so overwhelmed
that I was allowed to help take away downed trees. I had a wood-burning
furnace at the time, and I may be the only person in the area to have
heated my home for an entire season with wood taken from trees in Bronson
back to the table
Safety in the bank
I was personnel director of First of America Bank Michigan and my
office was on the ground level at 108 E. Michigan Ave.
just completed an interview with a candidate for our management-training
program when the siren sounded. A co-worker, Dave Harrison, came by
to tell me of the tornado warning. We went to the bank's Michigan Avenue
entrance and couldn't believe our eyes -- we could clearly see the funnel
approaching from the west. We hurriedly gathered as many pedestrians
from the street as possible and invited them to take shelter in the
bank. We all rushed down the stairs to the safety-deposit box area in
the building basement. No sooner had we reached the bottom of the stairs,
when we heard a crashing sound -- much of the glass of the skylight
in the main lobby came crashing down. Fortunately, there were no injuries.
Shortly thereafter, the board of directors emerged from a meeting
in the basement. They were unaware of what had just happened except
for feeling a sudden change in air pressure caused by the tornado.
That evening, Bill C., Dick C. and I boarded up the bank windows.
The next day I was in line with Irving Gilmore at the fairgrounds
waiting to receive a pass so that we could go back into the downtown
area to further assess the damage.
The demon had no mercy. It roared down M-43 with
a ferocious growl, tearing apart houses, howling and clawing through
the sky, dragging down everything it encountered with its vicious, merciless
wind. It devastated the landscape, uprooting trees and telephone poles,
tearing ugly holes in sturdy buildings, and leaving beastly memories
of pain and death.
The weather on the morning of May 13, 1980,
was perfection. Bronson Park was a blaze of red and white tulips and
yellow daffodils. The trees waved their lacy, green leaves in the spring
breeze and basked languidly in warm sunshine under the bluest of skies.
Nobody dreamed that, a few hours later, that same sky would darken under
black boiling clouds, and lives would be changed forever.
the tornado drew closer to the downtown, and the warning sirens screamed,
the occupants of what is now the Comerica Bank building, where I worked,
began pouring down the stairs to the basement, their faces white with
fear. We were many frightened people packed tightly together in a humid,
tension-filled atmosphere. Suddenly, the lights went out and a hideous
roar filled the air. Terror gripped us. When the emergency lights came
on, we watched as the ceiling tiles lifted and settled, filling the
air with swirling dust and dirt. Abruptly, one of the elevator doors
opened; it was filled with splintered boards and glass. A friend grabbed
my arm and whispered, "Oh my God, we're going to die down here."
When the wind finally stopped, and we returned to the main floor,
we were astonished at the degree of devastation. Every window in the
building was broken, glass still showering from the upper floors. Dirty,
shredded curtains flapped limply through dark, gaping holes, electrical
wires were down and sparking, and all the majestic trees in the park
were uprooted and lying haphazardly, like broken sticks, in debris-strewn
streets. When we were allowed to leave the building, we stumbled to
our homes in varying degrees of numbness. That evening, while watching
the news, it finally hit me. I was actually in that blasted-out hulk
of a building they were showing on TV! I cried and shook as I relived
the terrible destruction that occurred in Kalamazoo's darkest hour.
Followed by a tornado
worked for a local office-equipment dealer and on that day had parked
our van right behind Gilmore's store in the alley. Unknown to me, the
tornado had already ravaged Kalamazoo's west side and, when I came out
of the store, the tornado was tearing up Bronson Park and what is now
the Comerica Building. Right after I drove off, it hit the Gilmore building
and the whole rear wall collapsed, from ground to roof, right where
I was parked!
As I drove south on Portage Street, the tornado
followed me before veering east about the second block of Portage and
carried on destroying buildings. I was unaware of all this until I reached
our store just south of Interstate 94. When the secretary asked me if
I had seen it, I was amazed -- and also amazed at how lucky I had been.
May 13, 1980, was my 25th birthday. I worked for Michigan Bell at
133 W. Lovell St. The tornado hit minutes before my lunch break. After
the all-clear was sounded, I hurried from the basement and ran across
Lovell to the Michigan Bell/AT&T building on the Kalamazoo Mall
(the building now contains condominiums). It was the third tallest building
downtown and I knew I would get a good view of any tornado damage from
I got more than I was looking for.
When I got
on the roof, I was stunned at the blueness of the sky. The sun was glowing
bright and there was a wisp of white clouds to the east.
noticed what was left of Bronson Park. Gaping holes yawned in the canopy
of once mighty oak trees. The trees were scattered about as if someone
were about to start a game of pickup sticks. I saw firemen working on
someone on Rose Street.
The mall looked like it was paved with
diamonds from all the shattered glass. A twisted water pipe gushed from
the second floor of Gilmore's. The glass was gone in the windows of
what is now the Comerica Bank building and the curtains were stuck to
the outside wall of the building. And then, up and down the mall, people
began to peek out from whatever store or eatery they were trapped in.
One step, two steps. Then they flooded out onto the mall. It reminded
me of the scene in the "The Wizard of Oz" when the munchkins first encounter
Starting at West Main Hill, it looked like an angry
giant had walked through the heart of town randomly smashing buildings
and trees. I was overwhelmed by nature's might and sat down in disbelief.
I can't help but
be reminded of May 13, 1980.
I have already heard a local radio
station's plans of having callers call in about their memories of 25
My hope, wish and prayer is that the news media will
not only keep in mind all the material devastation that was left behind,
but also -- more importantly -- remember those five people who lost
There are family and friends who can't forget the
heartache of that day.
Fortunately, only five people died.
Where we were isn't really as important as what impact that day
has had on the lives of the family and friends of those who were taken.
My mother died in the tornado.
This will be a hard week.
I certainly wish that things like the tornado and the planes crashing
into the World Trade Center weren't such big news. Where are the blessings
that are happening in our world today? Good news sometimes just seems
to get lost.
Please honor the feelings and emotions of the families
and friends. This is a painful time, especially the week of Mother's
Unforgettable bus ride
The tornado struck while I was taking the bus from Sangren Hall
to Richland, with a transfer downtown. As the bus approached the intersection
of Stadium Drive and West Michigan Avenue, it stopped in front of the
The sky had taken on an ominous yellow tinge --
the color that everyone raised in Michigan learns is that of an oncoming
tornado. All of the passengers and the driver sprinted to the Chalet,
but I stopped and turned around. What a sight! I had never before seen
a twister. The most spellbinding part was the slash-dancing tail, skipping
its way directly to me. Then someone behind me bellowed, "Hey! Get in
here!" When I entered the Chalet on a dead run, someone pointed down
a narrow stairway. All of my fellow passengers were already there.
We waited until someone said it was all clear. We boarded the bus;
there wasn't too much damage around the restaurant. As we passed by
St. Augustine School, we gasped on seeing the school's collapsed roof.
And that was only the beginning. The driver could not proceed any closer
to the transfer center and he let us off in front of First Presbyterian
Church, amid broken branches, downed wires and shattered glass. No phone
service. Eventually, after wading through the debris past Gilmore's
collapsed wall, I found the Richland bus and took it to 30th Street
and Gull Road. I walked home, arriving at around 7 that night.
Reporting a funnel cloud
I remember May 13, 1980, as if it was yesterday. I was taking a
load of asparagus from Three Rivers to Honey Bear Cannery in Lawton.
When I left Three Rivers it was sunny and warm. Off to the west I could
see a cloud bank on the horizon, with some very large thunderheads.
As I got into Marcellus, the wind began to pick up and it began to rain.
By the time I got out of Marcellus, it started to hail, with hailstones
the size of marbles. The wind was very strong and it was hard to keep
my truck on the road. It only lasted about 10 minutes, until the rain
and wind quit and the sun came out. But as I approached Lawton, the
sky was pitch black just to the west-northwest.
I couldn't believe
my eyes when I saw a funnel cloud that looked close to Interstate 94.
When I pulled into the cannery, I told my friend to call the sheriff's
department to report a funnel cloud sighting. I went back out with his
sister to see it; the sky was pitch black with a yellow color on the
outer edges. It was an unbelievable sight.
Digging out at Gilmore's
It was quitting time
at J. B. Printing Co., so I punched out and started walking to the bus.
But then I looked west up Kalamazoo Avenue and saw the funnel coming.
I ran back and told the boss and everybody there, and we all went to
a little room under the stairs.
We heard and felt it go by our
building. When it was all calm, I started back downtown. I got by Hepp's
clothing store and I knew I wouldn't be riding the bus. I kept making
my way down Michigan Avenue and got by Farmers Alley and saw the back
of Gilmore's blown out and the bridge walkway down. I headed that way
and started to go to work on the pile of rubble looking for any victims.
We uncovered five people, hoping they were all right. After we knew
everybody was accounted for, they came in with a bulldozer and started
to scoop up the rubble. We still kept our eyes peeled. We finally quit
about 7 p.m.
I started walking home toward Parchment. I got as
far as the McDonald's on Riverview Drive and knocked on the door because
they were closed. I looked messy and dirty, but they let me in to use
the phone to call home.
My wife did not believe me. She thought
I was drunk, the way I was talking, I was so tired. She finally came
and believed me when she saw me.
back to the table
A missing son
"I know where your daughter is, but not your son," said the voice
answering the phone. I was calling my children's baby-sitter from a
pay phone in Paw Paw.
As a children's services caseworker, I
had spent the day driving the back roads of Van Buren County checking
on the welfare of other people's children. Back at the office the first
thing I heard was, "Downtown Kalamazoo has been destroyed." My children,
David and Sonita, were in downtown Kalamazoo.
The anxiety I felt
had me jumping out of my skin. A quick stop at a pay phone sent me relief
and fear. My daughter was safe, but my son was nowhere to be found.
Sheer "Mommy Power" guided me through twists of branches and wires to
my baby-sitter's door.
Sonita, then 5, remembers: "I was at my
baby-sitter's and remember there were no adults, just a bunch of children
with 10-year-old John in charge. John had a passion for meteorology,
and as we sat on the front porch watching the weather, he kept saying,
'This is so cool.' When it got really crazy, we ran downstairs and hid
in the basement. I remember thinking: Where is my brother?"
age 11, remembers: "I left my baby-sitter's and was heading to an after-school
program at Old Kalamazoo Central. Westnedge Avenue was deserted. The
wind picked up and I sprinted across the street trying to reach safety
before the rain hit. I heard a noise and stopped dead in the middle
of the street. The sky was a boiling mass of green clouds. I stood in
the middle of Westnedge for a good three minutes staring up at the sky
as the tornado passed right over me. I could see it clearly up in the
clouds. Its funnel was dangling down, twisting and spinning but it had
not yet touched the ground. While I stood there, not a single car passed
me. After it passed overhead, I felt I was snapping out of a trance.
I turned and ran as fast as I could to the school."
With my daughter's
hand in mine, we walked to Old Central. We found David on the second
floor with a handful of students and teachers.
I looked at my children and knew two things to be true: Nothing could
break the loving bond we shared and it was time to find different child
It was Secretary's Day, and the legal secretaries working in the
Ford and Kriekard law firm, including myself, were taken out for lunch
by our bosses.
Our offices were located on the 10th floor of
what was then the American National Bank building.
afternoon, the skies became ominous and, when we observed debris flying
down Michigan Avenue, we decided to head for the basement. One of our
secretaries insisted she must finish a letter she was typing, but eventually
she followed along.
Days later, many of our missing files and
legal papers were found at the Kalamazoo Paper Co. a mile away and wrapped
in ladies lingerie from Gilmore's store.
Mr. F. from our law
firm had this to say: "This will be the last time this office will observe
In the Upjohn basement
I was working on the sixth floor of Building 25 of The Upjohn Co.
One of my staff said they heard a radio report of a twister sighting
on M-43. I looked out the windows and saw it was very reminiscent of
how things looked during some hurricanes I had experienced.
said, "OK, let's head toward the basement." When we got to the basement,
there were no crowds of people and it seemed out of place for us to
We were about to leave when the lights flickered and
went out. When they came back on, power came from an emergency source.
Still, no alarm came over the public-address system. Shortly thereafter
crowds of people joined us in the basement. Some were saying, "I saw
it, I saw it!" There were worried looks.
When we left the basement,
it was a mess outside. There were downed tree branches and swathes of
pink building insulation rolling about the street. Everybody was looking
toward the right at the back of Gilmore's department store. It suffered
quite a bit of damage -- crushed walls, water spraying out of broken
pipes. Farther over, windows of the Old Kent building were knocked out
and papers were flying in the air. It was a war zone and a bit scary.
In the subsequent cleanup, the library staff told of powdered glass
drilled into the thick bindings of scientific journals stored on the
seventh floor of Building 209.
I worked for Domtar Industries Inc. on the
fourth floor of the Park Building across from Bronson Park.
sirens were blasting warnings to take cover. The fourth-floor employees
ran for the elevator and went to the basement, except for one insurance
agent who took cover under his desk. In the basement, you could tell
when the tornado hit as the door had a tremendous amount of pressure
Going back up to the office, my boss's chair had a large
chunk of glass in the seat. There was glass, wet papers, insulation
and you name it all over the two west rooms of the office. The draperies
were waving in the breeze from the broken windows. In my office, my
electric typewriter was covered with glass. I picked it up and put it
in a closet so it
wouldn't be damaged any more.
came out after it was over. My car was covered with glass and everything
else in the air. Fortunately, I could still drive it, although later
I found it needed a new windshield and a repainting. I had to drive
over glass and debris to get out. No stoplights were working. I got
back to my home in Climax, safe but shook up.
No calling home
I was working at First of
America Bank in the Kalamazoo Center. We knew a storm was coming --
the sky was a strange color and it was very calm. Suddenly, it got very
dark and began to blow. Security announced that everyone was to go to
the lower level of the building. My co-workers and I started to close
up the bank when the windows of the store across the aisle started to
blow out and we could hear the skylights falling.
We opted to
stay in the bank, got under the counters and rode out the storm. I tried
calling home as our youngest son was home from school, but I couldn't
call out. My husband was able to call in but the line went dead as we
Watching the tornado
When we heard the warning siren, we went to the window and looked
outside. The sky was a weird bright green on one side and black on the
From our offices on the third floor of the Industrial
State Bank building, we watched as a group of kids scurried into the
county courthouse across the street. Then all of a sudden a huge funnel
appeared, seemingly from nowhere, above the courthouse. It was huge,
taking up half the sky. We watched as trees from Bronson Park were being
pulled up into the tornado. I thought, "I'll click off a few shots,"
and grabbed a camera, but no film was loaded.
One of my co-workers,
who had foolishly stayed behind with me, shouted, "Let's get out of
here," and suddenly we realized we were in great danger. We ran to the
stairwell and quickly closed the steel door behind us. We only made
it down about a half a flight of stairs and my ears popped, worse than
I had ever experienced.
Suddenly, it was very still and quiet,
so we headed back up and opened the door we had just closed. It looked
like a war zone; the whole floor was covered with automobile glass and
pieces of debris. There were parts of boxes that had contained sales
materials we had just opened -- these were "distributed" for us, reportedly
as far away as Comstock Township. I noticed the large paper cutter and
drawing lamp in my work area were missing. I saw the paper cutter next
to a couple of cars in the parking area. Then I noticed a cord going
out the window and it was my lamp hanging out the window.
car was parked on the top floor of the Kalamazoo Center ramp and its
windows were spared because I had mistakenly left one of the back vents
opened just a crack. Every other car up there lost all its windows.
Glad to be home
On May 13,
1980, I was 16 and on my way to my piano lesson at Kalamazoo College.
I don't remember any warnings about bad weather. At my lesson, my teacher
kept telling me to play louder because he couldn't hear me. I began
the piece again and played it as loud as I could. I was pounding on
the piano keys. It was the strangest sensation to be playing the piano
and not be able to hear myself play. The reason was the wind was whipping
furiously through the trees outside.
Someone knocked on the door
and said a tornado had been spotted. We hunkered down in the hallway
outside the room, which was in the lower level of the building. It sounded
like a freight train was approaching the building at record speeds.
We sat speechless and waited it out. After the tornado had passed through
we stumbled outside to see the damage. The best way I can describe the
sensation is surreal. Trees were upended by their roots, cars were crushed
under trees and debris was littering the streets.
I slowly drove
back home, driving on sidewalks and across yards to avoid trees blocking
the street. I was almost home when I heard honking and saw my parents
driving toward me honking and waving. I was never so glad to get back
Tornado in the distance
I had finished teaching for the day at Gilkey Elementary School
in Plainwell and was picking up my two daughters at the baby-sitter's
house on West F Ave.
Driving south on 12th Street, I noticed
unusual cloud formations. Lower clouds were moving south while the higher
clouds were moving north. Then I heard the tornado warning on the radio.
As I arrived at the baby-sitter's house, hail pounded down on my
Ford Pinto. I raced into the house only to look out the window and see
a tornado in the west.
We rushed to the basement as hail covered
the ground. We were spared the tornado's arrival as it veered toward
the west side of Kalamazoo, and the rest was history.
I was scheduled
to work the 3 to 11 p.m. shift at James River Corp.'s Plant 11 on the
curve of East Michigan Avenue, across from the Eastwood Tavern. Arriving
at 3 p.m., the guys in the shipping department were watching the skies
to the west, toward the river and train yard.
Around 4 p.m.,
we heard the city sirens. We were told to shut off our machines, so
they wouldn't burn, and head for the basement. The guys from shipping
were the last ones down. They said they saw the funnel coming over the
After some time, we all came up from the basement to
see what had happened. I don't recall any building damage, only our
amazement at the litter and muddy, wet lingerie from Gilmore's department
store. Bras, girdles, underwear and nightgowns -- with price tags still
attached -- were strewn down the train tracks, on the roof and across
the parking lot.
Jury duty interrupted
On May 13, 1980, I was on a jury at the Kalamazoo County Courthouse.
The trial had been going on for a week or two and all the jurors were
getting tired of the slow proceedings.
What had started as a
bright sunny day soon turned dark and cloudy, but it didn't seem anything
more than the usual spring storm.
Imagine our surprise when the
judge said we were all going to the basement. We were escorted to a
lower level that we didn't even know existed. I thought to myself that
this was really unnecessary. My mind was soon changed when I heard a
rumble like a freight train going over my head. We were kept in that
dark basement for a few minutes and then allowed upstairs.
found most of the windows blown out and debris of all kinds strewn around.
Looking across the street we saw many buildings damaged more than
ours. My car was across the street on the top deck of the parking ramp
and had quite a bit of damage not visible at first. By the time I got
to the top of Westnedge Hill, the sun was shining brightly and no one
seemed aware of the damage that had been done just a few blocks away.
looking out the window overlooking Michigan Avenue from the second floor
of the Kalamazoo Center, where I worked at a small graphic design firm.
The sky was a very odd blackish-green and the clouds were swirling.
All of a sudden, a couple Metro Transit buses stopped abruptly on
the street and everyone on them ran off and into the nearest buildings.
At the same time, someone burst into our office and yelled, "There's
a tornado coming down the street -- get downstairs!"
down several stairs at a time in the middle of the open-atrium center,
trying to get two floors below. I glanced up at the huge skylight above
and saw huge parts of trees and roofs flying through the air before
the glass began to shatter, luckily missing the stairs I was on. Windows
and glass doors on the first floor seemed to implode as I joined the
large group of people gathered together on the lowest level. I noticed
some had received minor cuts, possibly from being outdoors when the
Afterward, while walking outside, the sun began to
shine but the surroundings were anything but sunny. The ground was blanketed
with broken glass and papers mixed with other debris. Cars and large
trucks were tossed about the streets, sidewalks and the Kalamazoo Mall
like toys, sitting on their sides.
Our office radio broadcast a report that
a tornado had hit near West Main Mall and U.S. 131.
ignoring the alert flew fast and furious: Downtown Kalamazoo had never
been hit by a tornado before. The rising heat from city pavement would
turn a tornado aside. Tornados always followed rivers or low spots.
It simply could not happen to us. Not to downtown.
One of Gilmore
Broadcasting Corp.'s vice presidents, Lou F., who normally walked at
a slow amble due to a back injury, made his way to the front door on
the southwest corner of Michigan Avenue and Portage Street. He returned
moving faster than I ever saw him move before. The tornado was heading
straight toward us. We followed Lou to the basement.
As the tornado
passed over, the change in air pressure caused the heavy steel basement
fire door to open. The lights flickered off, then emergency lighting
took over. After sitting in silence for a few minutes more, we emerged.
The back door opened to the alley shared by Dimitri's restaurant
and the parking lot for the Gilmore's department store. I could faintly
hear screams from the store. The door was stuck in the frame, the glass
broken. Carefully we climbed out. The air was completely still. Totally
in shock, we found the entire back wall of Gilmore's crumpled to the
alley below. It looked like the back of a dollhouse, with a cutaway
for children to move their toys. Phones hung from cords, dangling down
a floor or two. Garments, price tags intact, were tangled in the branches
of trees planted in the alleyway. Brick dust hung over everything. The
pedestrian walkway was gone. Cars on the top level of the parking ramp
were no longer in neat, precise rows. I remember hearing crying. I heard
it again in dreams for several weeks.
I called my family in Vicksburg,
telling the kids I was OK and probably would be late getting home. Then
the phone went dead.
The janitor unlocked the door to our roof
to check for building damage, and we climbed up to view the city from
this higher spot. Amazing! The roof had a hole in it large enough to
have dropped a Sherman tank through.
Several of us walked through
the building, exiting through the Michigan entrance. Most of the storefront
windows had been blown in. Sharp stalactites of glass hung from the
upper sills of windows. They shivered, rattled and fell with the tinkling
of wind chimes.
Every person in view wore identical expressions
Taking cover at library
It started out like any other beautiful sunny May day as I reported
to work at the Kalamazoo Public Library.
In late afternoon, an
announcement came over the loud speaker instructing everyone to go to
the designated room in case of a tornado. Sirens began to go off.
Employees and patrons waited patiently in fear for the all-clear
Finally, it was over and everyone ran to the window to
see the aftermath. Trees were down in Bronson Park. It looked like a
war zone. Windows were broken in some stores. Michigan Avenue was not
recognizable. Police were everywhere.
I had never experienced
a tornado. It was something to behold. The amazing part was the time
frame. All this destruction took place in a matter of 30 or 45 minutes.
From that day on, I have had the greatest respect for Mother Nature.
Shelter under a desk
was working at the H.J. Cooper Dodge dealership on the corner of Park
Street and West Michigan Avenue and had gone to the Kalamazoo Mall on
an errand. Returning to work, I noticed how dark it had become. As I
passed the county courthouse, I saw then-Prosecutor James Gregart standing
on the roof and he was pointing to the north where the sky looked really
Not knowing what was going on, I ran the rest of the
way back to work to find out that a tornado had been spotted. We had
a pretty sturdy building so everyone found a corner or hole and hoped
for the best. I found an empty office and crawled under a big desk and
pulled the oversized chair behind me to keep the flying glass away.
As I was hiding, I peeked out of a small opening. At the height of the
storm I saw a small car thrown to the grass in front of the old post
office. After the storm passed, the majority of employees stayed in
the building all night, eating take-out pizza and drinking pop.
Family safe and sound
that fateful day, my family and I went about our daily duties. My husband
worked at the Kalamazoo Psychiatric Hospital. Our youngest son worked
at DeGroot Office Machines. I worked at Bronson Methodist Hospital as
a patient representative in the emergency room. Our youngest daughter
had a 6-week-old baby. When I first heard of a tornado, I tried to phone
her so she could seek shelter but she wasn't home.
At the hospital,
we were ushered to a safe place. When it was over, it was obvious the
emergency room would be quite busy. People began to trickle in and I
was momentarily pleased, thinking it wasn't so bad after all. Then we
heard the Gilmore store had collapsed and we feared more would be dead
or injured. It was amazing and a blessing no more than five were killed.
When things quieted down, I realized I hadn't given one thought
regarding my family. Then my husband and daughter came to the hospital
to see about me and it occurred to me that they were all in the path
of the tornado. We were blessed. We were all safe. Our son's car was
the only one on the block where DeGroot's was located that wasn't damaged.
He had been instrumental in getting the employees to the basement for
safety. Our daughter was downtown to catch a bus to run an errand, and
had gone into a bathroom at what is now the Radisson hotel when the
tornado hit. She said she prayed as she realized what was happening.
Seeing the wall collapse
My husband, Cal, and I were resident managers at the Stratton Arms,
which is now the Rickman House on the corner of Burdick Street and Kalamazoo
Avenue. The hotel had about 60 older residents who needed a place with
meals and housekeeping, medication monitoring, transportation and support.
On May 13, 1980, I went into the kitchen around 4 p.m. to start
the evening meal. I could see the sky through the dining-room windows
and didn't like what I saw. I called my husband to come down, and as
he was coming, the sirens began and the lights went out. He started
shepherding folks down the basement stairs. The maintenance man and
I started knocking on doors and asking people to go down.
I came down the stairs around the fourth floor, I had to face the windows.
And for the first time I looked out. To the east, I saw the brick wall
of Gilmore's just sliding down in a pile. That will forever be etched
in my mind.
As I came to the first floor, I was pretty shaky.
I grabbed the roster off the desk and continued to the basement.
Calling the roll I found five people unaccounted for -- two people
at their jobs, one was with her family, one was taking her daily walk
and one was having her hair done. Where were they? At Gilmore's? The
last two, I was really worried about. But Kathy (the walker) came in
about then, complaining about how windy and noisy it was. Elna had taken
shelter with the ladies at the chocolate shop next to Gilmore's; she
came through our door eating a cup of ice cream.
Now with all
our residents located, I could turn my attention to our 9-year-old son.
He was at Western Michigan University for a tutoring session. I was
not worried about his safety, but I thought he would be worried about
us and his dog Queenie.
I drove to get him and started back downtown,
but I was stopped at every block and told no one could go in the area.
I ended up driving north and around.
My husband and I had tried
to provide as close to a family atmosphere as possible as a family of
60 could be. And our son took his role very seriously, too. After checking
on Queenie, he escorted people up and down the stairs the rest of the
night. Power came on at 4:10 a.m.
in the windshield
Back in May 1980 I lived in an apartment
a few blocks from downtown Kalamazoo.
A friend and I were tinkering
with my car when I heard a radio announcer say, "Downtown Kalamazoo
will never be the same. A tornado just came through." We were about
12 blocks away and the weather didn't seem all that bad.
we rushed downtown and got there before the police cordoned off the
area. There was debris and destruction everywhere. I saw a young woman
standing on the sidewalk outside the magazine store. She was gripping
a sign post and just staring across the street. Her face was completely
white and expressionless. That's the most enduring memory of the many
things I saw. As I walked past her, she never moved. I wondered, "Was
she out here the whole time?" Her grip on that post suggested it was
We climbed to the downtown parking structure and
surveyed the scene from there. Across the street stood the Industrial
State Bank building, which took the full brunt of the tornado. You couldn't
see an intact window in the place. Later we would learn that the entire
structure had been twisted four inches at its base.
our way back to South Street. Gilmore's was partially collapsed and
I saw water squirting in the air from the severed plumbing. We walked
alongside Bronson Park where most of the huge old trees lay on their
In the parking lot of a popular nightclub the cars were
tossed about like toys. A wood beam, about 4 inches square and 5 feet
long, had been driven through a car windshield and directly into the
I learned that day that it's not the high winds
of a tornado that hurt you, it's the stuff flying around and falling
Everywhere we went and looked there were tree limbs
and branches and papers. Everywhere. You could hardly take a step without
something being underfoot. And every scrap of paper that I picked up
and examined had come from the Industrial State Bank. People were later
finding deposit slips and canceled checks in Galesburg, 15 miles away.