Tornado Town: 25 Years Ago in Saragosa, Texas

Posted in: Moore Thoughts | By: | May 08, 2012

There is a spot in the road as you top Wild Rose Pass where you can look to the north and see across the Permian Basin and all of Texas looks endlessly flat. Geologic time seems visible like the hands on a clock. The Davis Mountains begin to shrink behind you and if you scan the horizon carefully you can get a sense of what happened on May 22, 1987. But there is no way to understand because no one can understand destiny when it is this tragic.

In the Pecos River Valley of West Texas, mostly Mexican immigrants pick the famous cantaloupe crops. They also go north to harvest beets and corn and fruit but some of them stay with their families in little towns like Saragosa. I had driven many times past the 100 plus houses and a handful of stores on route 17 because it lay between Pecos and the state park and limestone pool down in Balmorhea. There was always a reason for me to be writing and working in West Texas and even when I ran out of them I spent free time wandering in the desert. There is light and air there that does not exist anywhere else and there are people living there who are independent and strong.

Desert and Mountains

Few ever noticed Saragosa because it was modest houses and trailers and if the road did not bend just north of town the traffic would have been passing at 80 miles per hour while racing down to Interstate 10. The sky was often clear on the edge of Reeves County and the dark Davis Mountains were usually visible across the Chihuahuan Desert. There were only a few hundred people living in Saragosa the night that a super cell storm climbed 61,000 feet into the atmosphere. A single funnel spun down between the mountains and the little town of laborers as about 80 people gathered at Guadalupe Hall for a pre-kindergarten graduation ceremony for Head Start children.

Out of the Still of a Night

In Texas we live with tornadoes almost all year long but they are rare in that part of the state because of the mountains. Reeves County had not suffered a single fatality as a result of a tornado from the time record keeping began in 1916 until the sun dropped below the horizon that day in 1987. Saragosa had no tornado-warning siren but a radio station broadcasted an alert and there was information from the TV stations about 100 miles distant in Midland. The families attending the graduation ceremony were oblivious until one of them stepped outside and saw a cloud with multiple funnels on the edge of town. No one left the hall and they went to corners and turned over benches and hid behind anything that might offer protection.

There was no time and little hope. Twenty-two people died in the building where they were about to begin a celebration of the future for their children. None of the graduates was killed but the twisters claimed eight more residents of Saragosa. A hard life on the edge of the desert had gone beyond grim. Five of the fatalities were under the age of five and the number of dead counted was at 30 before the sun rose and America began hearing the horrible story of the tornado town.

Dust in the Wind

Reporters came from the big cities with their rental cars and neckties and satellite trucks that sent live signals back for broadcast. They were parked along the side of Highway 17 and when their cameras pointed at the town it all looked like a disaster movie was being filmed but it was real and even sadder than it appeared to outsiders. Cameras also recorded the tiny children’s caskets a few days later as they were carried down Cemetery Road to gravelly holes in the desert that had wooden crosses with hand-carved names to mark their eternal spots.

Nothing to Say, Nothing to Do

Healing does not happen fast in the desert but the old man who owned the only general store in town was making his own adobe bricks for rebuilding a few days after the storm. One-by-one he carried them to a stack as the mud dried. The cameras turned quickly away, though, and the unknown town went forgotten as the world cast its eyes back to politics and celebrities and newer disasters. Nobody you know can tell you about Saragosa or where it is or what happened on that night of great statistical improbabilities.

I rode my motorcycle through Saragosa last summer but I did not stop and barely reduced my speed. I tried not to look at the sign pointing down Cemetery Road and had been confronting the memory of the tornado as I came down from Pecos in the painful July heat. There is still no way to talk about what happened there but I think about Saragosa every time a warm day turns suddenly cool and the sky darkens and the wind freshens.

And I’ll wish again that I could forget.

7 Comments for this entry

  • Nita Tapley

    I remember Saragosa! I am a teacher and was teaching in Pecos at the time of the tornado. I taught with a lady whose sister-in-law and one year old nephew were killed in the storm. We had traumatized students who were frightened every time the power went out. Another friend who grew up in saragosa was visiting his parents in Saragosa that night. He sat in the sherriff’s car and called for help because he is blind and could not help with the search. I will always remember Saragosa.

  • Jody Wein

    I was also a teacher in Pecos at the time. We were at a birthday party at my brother-in-law’s house when we heard the news. I grew up in Arkansas, so I was familiar with, but not used to, tornado season, but I never dreamed that this would happen in West Texas. The funeral of our school secretary and her baby boy was the saddest I’ve ever attended. I have 2 nieces and a father-in-law whose birthdays are on May 22, but I will always remember that the Saragosa Tornado was that same day.

  • Martin Lustenberger

    In April 1987 we (a group of Europeans) were travelling through Texas. We stopped at the General Store of Saragosa because of a problem with the engine of the van. I remember the local people being very friendly. One man patiently helped me find and solve the problem. We even drove to his house to find a part. Two months later I passed Saragosa with another group. It was a shock. I’ll never forget the destruction I saw. But I’ll also never forget the wonderful people in this town.

  • Jesse Munoz

    I was just a boy when this tragedy took place. A 3rd grader in Midland, TX, but nonetheless I can remember being so heart-broken watching the news footage of the Saragosa aftermath. I have family in Pecos who, in turn, had friends in Saragosa; friends they lost, friends with whom they still mourn. Tragedies like this are just like Mr. Moore writes, impossible to forget, regardless of what stage in life you’re in. Today, an all too similar tragedy struck Moore, Oklahoma and the initial casualty count is nothing short of awful. Seeing the newscast brought back that familiar, albeit, morbid feeling I felt 26 years ago. So sad, and equally as unforgettable.

  • Brad Hennagir

    I was a part of a Boy Scout troop en route to a camp out that night. We pulled over almost immediately after the tornado struck. Although I was barely a 13 year old boy that night, I vividly remember some of the things that took place. Since that evening, and for the rest of my life, I think of the great citizens of the town, the other boys I was with, and the valiant leaders that led us through the night. I don’t know that I ever did as much as I wish I could have, but the town holds a special place in my heart forever. I someday hope to bring my family to see the town as it stands today.

  • Ed Martin

    Jim,

    Every time Patsy and I drive west on the way to visit family in El Paso, I look off to the north at Hwy 17 and think about that storm – a meteorological fluke but so tragically real. The world spins on as life is defined from place to place. May peace be found.

    Ed

  • Jim

    Thanks for the note, Ed. It is a haunting place, always will be for me. Never go out that way without thinking about those days after the tornado.

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