Until now, published photographs of the infamous tornado that hit Waco on May 11, 1953, have all been as dark and monochromatic as the funnel cloud that plowed through downtown, leaving 114 persons dead and almost 600 injured. But a recent chance discovery by a former Waco resident offers a different look — in color — at the devastation left by that epochal event.
Fourteen never-before-seen color images, originally shot on Kodachrome slide film, show random scenes of destruction across Waco — from Austin Avenue and the City Hall square downtown to residential areas along the tornado’s path. They were all shot by David Reagan, who at the time was a 14-year-old ninth-grader at Waco’s West Junior High School helping out as a relief worker downtown.
“The thing that’s interesting to me about the pictures I took is that I have never seen any other color pictures of the Waco tornado,” said Reagan, a former college teacher and administrator who now is an evangelist in Allen, Texas. “There’s a little bit of real poor color motion picture footage out there, but all of the photos I’ve seen are in black and white, even the ones I found on the Internet that Life magazine took.”
Reagan was born in Sherman, Texas, but when World War II ended in 1945 his father, a sheet metal worker, moved the family from South Carolina back to Texas.
“I remember that as we drove, my mother read to my dad out of the Texas Almanac, reading about every city in Texas,” Reagan said. “On the third day of traveling, she finally got down to the end of the alphabet to Waco, and the sentence she read said, ‘Waco has more churches per capita than any city in Texas.’ My dad said, ‘That’s where I want to raise my boys,’ so that’s where we went.”
While Reagan’s dad opened a sheet metal shop in Waco on Eighth Street near the railroad tracks, just a block or two from the federal courthouse, the young boy kept busy at his hobby of photography, which involved taking more than an occasional snapshot.
“I had a darkroom of my own where I developed my own film and made black and white enlargements and that sort of thing,” he said. “I had a very nice camera that I’d worked like a dog to save money to buy. I bought what I considered to be the finest camera you could have at that time — a super high-powered 35mm camera called a Voigtländer Vitessa 2, made in Germany back when the Germans were still making the world’s best cameras. I thought I had the best camera in the state of Texas. I was really into photography.”
On the afternoon of May 11, Reagan and his mother were at their home on Sturgis Lane near Lake Waco, and had noticed the dark clouds and terrible rainstorm that were moving in. Reagan’s father was downtown at his sheet metal shop, getting ready to close for the day.
“My dad had grown up in Oklahoma, so he had been in a lot of tornadoes. He was sitting at his desk that afternoon around closing time when suddenly his ears started popping, and he felt the pressure dropping rapidly. He knew that meant a tornado,” Reagan said. “He jumped up and ran back in the shop there and told all the men working there to get under their big, heavy work tables. They all got under the tables and then the entire building collapsed, but nobody was hurt. Later, when my dad dug out from the debris he went back up to the front, and the very chair he had been sitting in was cut in half by a piece of corrugated iron that had come in through the window.”
Reagan’s dad soon came home and took his son to view downtown, which Reagan said “looked like an atomic bomb had gone off.” Schools were canceled for a week, so the boy spent his first day of freedom helping men clear rubble and pull bodies from the wreckage of the R.T. Dennis building, site of the largest concentration of tornado deaths.
“They finally said they didn’t want any kids around there because they were afraid we’d get hurt, so they ran all of us out,” Reagan said. “So I started working for the Salvation Army, which had a food service place set up for rescue workers. I worked for them the rest of that week, and when I got the chance I’d go out and take pictures.”
Before the tornado hit, Reagan had loaded his camera with a rare roll of Kodacolor slide film. Most of his downtown shots were taken on May 12, the day after the tornado, and he captured some classic subjects. One photo is of the front of the Hotel Raleigh taken from across Austin Avenue. With bystanders in the street in front of the Purple Cow Sandwich Shop, located in the hotel lobby, the Raleigh’s huge neon name sign balances precariously above them, having been bent and cut open by the winds and almost ripped off the building.
Other photos taken downtown by Reagan bear witness to the incredible strength of the F5 tornado, the strongest twister possible. One image shows a multilevel storage building, apparently used to store produce.
In the photo, not only has the building’s roof collapsed in a wavy pattern as if melted, but the side of the upper floor has been peeled open, much like a tin of sardines opened with a twist key.
A pair of photos shows two businesses, Grayson’s clothing store at 701 Austin Ave. and a drugstore on the downtown square (possibly the Palace Drug Store), looking as though bombs had been detonated inside the buildings, blowing their contents into the street.
Other downtown images show a series of automobiles crushed, ripped open and half-buried by bricks and falling building parts.
Reagan took two photos along Austin Avenue about a block south of the old Roosevelt Hotel, the area where the tornado did the most damage. Seen behind the Roosevelt is the somewhat intact Harelik’s Man’s Shop at 416 Austin Ave., right next to the demolished remains of businesses such as Chris’s Cafe, the Joy Theatre and R.T. Dennis building.
After spending the first day shooting these scenes downtown, Reagan used the remaining three frames of his color film taking photos of residential destruction.
“My dad put me in a car and said, ‘I want to see the route this thing took.’ So we started following the route, and it went a long way,” Reagan said. “There would be one house that was just fine, and then there would be a house next to it that was gone. It’s strange the way tornadoes work like that.”
The tornado covered a lot of ground before and after it demolished downtown Waco. Maps later showed it first touching ground in southwest McLennan County, then passing between Woodway and Hewitt and through Beverly Hills before heading straight for downtown. The tornado continued its movement after leaving downtown, going through Bellmead and then disappearing somewhere in the northeast part of the county.
Reagan had the color slides developed soon after taking them, but he put them away and forgot about them for more than 55 years. About a year ago, when he decided to have all of his old slides transferred to digital discs for safekeeping, he was surprised to come across the color images of the Waco tornado. Knowing of no local tornado archive to donate the images to, he decided to give them to the Waco Tribune-Herald , which had employed him as a paperboy in the 1950s.
Reagan’s color images of the Waco tornado are indeed rare. When the Waco City Cable Channel researched possible photographs for television documentaries about the tornado, municipal information director Larry Holze said they were unable to find any color photos to use. Wilton Lanning, executive director of the Waco Business League and an authority on the tornado, said color photos of tornado damage do exist, but said there are very few of them.
After a long career in higher education, Reagan became a Christian evangelist in 1980 and founded a nondenominational ministry that includes a magazine, television broadcasts and public appearances. He still thinks often of the deadly tornado and its impact on Waco.
“As a preacher, I often refer to the tornado and the fact that it produced a great spiritual response as people suddenly realized there were things in life beyond their control,” he said. “Churches were crowded to overflowing for several months following the tornado, and then, as the impact of the tornado began to wane, people began to drift away.”