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 Main Street.
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.'"
When 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!"
My 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 Upjohn
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
I was 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 second floor.
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
I 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
We 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 unhurt.
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 Park.
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.
I had 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
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
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.
As 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
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
Followed by a tornado
I 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 the roof.
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.
I first 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 Dorothy.
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 years ago.
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 their lives.
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 Day.
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 Swiss Chalet.
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
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
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
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?"
David, 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.
Driving home, 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 care.
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
Our offices were located on the 10th floor of what was then the American
National Bank building.
During the 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
Mr. F. from our law firm had this to say: "This will be the last time
this office will observe Secretary's Day!"
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.
I 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 be there.
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.
Loud 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 on it.
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.
The sun 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 spoke.
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.
My 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 home.
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 tracks.
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
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
We found most of the windows blown out and debris of all kinds strewn
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.
I was 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
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!"
I leaped 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 storm hit.
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.
Screams from Gilmore's
Our office radio broadcast a report that a tornado had hit near West
Main Mall and U.S. 131.
Reasons for 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
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 of incredulity.
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 siren.
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
I 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
On 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
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.
As 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
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.
Beam in the windshield
Back in May 1980 I lived in an apartment a few blocks from downtown
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
Naturally 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 probably so.
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.
We worked 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 sides.
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 driver's seat.
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 that does.
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.