Terrible Tuesday, April 10th, 1979
My first day on the job was March 2nd. As you can imagine, I was really excited to get to work and get into the new digs. KLAW was on the second floor of the Security Bank Building in downtown Lawton. We had a hundred foot stick or tower on the roof above us. We operated at 101.5 on the FM band and had something like 50,000 watts. It had old equipment but it at least was functional. The control room was large and housed the usual equipment of board, turntables, and cart players. This would be my first operation where we would play virtually all the music on carts instead of records. We had a noisy clunking teletype in a closet near the hallway.
As you sat at the console there was a room to your immediate left with a large picture window. The room wasn’t anything more than a narrow closet. That was the newsroom. It had a very narrow shelf along the wall to hold a typewriter and provide a writing surface. There were two scanners on which we monitored police & fire frequencies. There was also a road map of Oklahoma thumb tacked to the wall. We had no equipment you could consider “high tech” even for its time.
The closest thing to that was a telephone that sat in the back of the control room on the counter. It was referred to as ‘The Hotline.’ It was a telephone connected to the Comanche County Emergency Management Services at the County Courthouse directly across the street from the radio station. The hotline was a party line connected to all the electronic media outlets and the local newspaper, the Lawton Constitution. Its purpose was to notify all the media at the same time about any citywide emergency situation. It was designed to save time so that everyone got the same information from the authorities in one all-encompassing message. It would prove to be the most important piece of equipment we had on Terrible Tuesday.
My first week found all of us on the staff immersed in the transition into the country format and adopting new priorities and procedures. I was still trying to interview and hire some new people. My average day was 14 to 16 hours. I dare say the rest of the staff wasn’t far behind me in hours spent on the job. We all recognized it. There was always something needing to be done. It was a mammoth job. It was probably good I stayed busy because looking back, if I had just stopped and looked at the big picture and saw everything that needed to be done; it was daunting and could have very easily been overwhelming. As a group everyone rolled up their collective sleeves and dug in to get the job done.
When the station changed format to country it became necessary to repaint the station van. It wouldn’t do to have a van painted with a rock ‘n roll theme so it was taken to a paint & body shop near the intersection of 2nd & Lee. On Monday morning, the 9th, Paul Hughes, the general manager and I drove to the shop to pick up the van. As we looked at the new paint job with the new lettering and logos, I noticed just a minimal amount of bleed through from the previous paint job. After a short discussion we decided that you really couldn’t see it unless you were really looking for it. We could have left it at the shop for some touch up but Paul and I decided we wanted to get our sticker spotter promotion going so we left with the County Giant van and drove back to our parking spot behind the bank. It would prove to be a fortuitous and prudent decision.
Tuesday, April 10th 1979 started off as an oppressively humid morning. The air was still and heavy. I’d describe it as foggy too. It would remain so for most of the day. It didn’t seem like anything out of the ordinary; after all, it was spring time along the Red River. We continued with our newly established routine of working the air shift and then getting busy with the day to day business of working on upcoming promotions, recording music to be played on the air and instituting new procedures. We spent a lot of time fine tuning the music clocks. These were the templates we used to determine the music rotation. Although Rogers had provided enough music carts to get us started, it was up to us to fill in the rest of the music inventory and begin to rotate the various cuts.
The first indication of trouble came when we received a call on the hotline I’d say around two thirty in the afternoon. The typical procedure was when the phone rang, you picked up the receiver, you said the name of your call letters; “KLAW” was all we needed to say. You waited until all the other outlets came on and identified themselves. Within a minute, three other radio stations and the Constitution were on the line. The voice that the other end of the line was Richard Atkins with the Comanche County Emergency Management Center. He called to inform us of a large buildup of storms in North Texas that had the potential of being severe with the possibility of strong winds, damaging hail with the very real possibility of tornadoes. Everyone acknowledged the information, hung up.
I walked into the newsroom and glanced at the Oklahoma map. It wasn’t anything more than a road map you’d pick up at the tourist center. I tried to get a quick bearing on where the storms were building. They initially appeared to be several hours away.
About a half hour later, the hotline rang again and I picked it up with the obligatory, “K-LAW.” Within a few moments my colleagues across town were on the hotline and we were all told that a tornado had just hit Vernon, TX and that it was a large storm cell moving to the Northeast approximately 40 to 45 miles per hour. That put the cell somewhere between 75 & 80 miles away but coming our way.
The last thing you want to do in radio is create panic or concern. Understand, a community builds a certain amount of trust in you. They expect you to keep your head in stressful situations. They rely on you to keep them informed with timely and important information but you certainly cannot cry, “Wolf.” As I gazed at the map I grabbed a ruler and laid it on the wall map directly over Vernon, angled it to the Northeast and low and behold, it fell directly over Lawton. Some quick calculations told me that if the storm cell maintained its current speed and direction, it would be over Lawton sometime around the five o’clock hour. That gives us an hour and a half to watch and listen. Even though I have made some calculations I didn’t feel comfortable going on the air and making an announcement just yet. The storm still had plenty of time to implode, change course or provide any number of scenarios. Watching the situation made more sense to me than getting everyone worked up. I remember thinking to myself, “Just stay cool and take it as it comes.”
As the minutes ticked by, I began to analyze the situation and thought about what our response should be if this really turns into a tornado situation. This would be my first encounter with a tornado in my town, in my neighborhood. Oddly enough, it never crossed my mind if we would be up for it but I concentrated on what we should do.
It seemed only moments later the hotline startled everyone within earshot. “K-LAW”, I answered. We were then told that the tornado was still on the ground and that it was still maintaining the same course and speed and that there had been more reports of damage. I think it was here that we were also told that he storm had overturned some semi-tractor trailer trucks in Vernon and that there were some fatalities as a result of the storm. We found out later, at least 12 persons lost their lives in Vernon and the immediate area. Although I was never able to confirm it, I did hear at least one report that one of Quanah Parker’s, the famed Comanche Chief’s granddaughters or Great granddaughters was one of the victims that day.
What had already been a very cloudy day with only spurts of intermittent sunlight the sky began to grow darker and heavier. It appeared to lower and become more threatening. As muggy and oppressive as the air had been, it seemed to get worse. Sometime around four thirty the hotline rang again. It appeared that the tornado had passed just below the town of Frederick and was rumbling up Highway 36. It was not long for moving toward the towns of Chattanooga and Faxon. I got the impression that the storm was bouncing up and down as it made its way toward us. I remember wondering if it would go back into the clouds before it hit us or would it stay on the ground. Only time would tell.
The tornado was approximately 25 to 30 miles away. I walked over to Al who was on the air and told him that I needed to make an announcement about the storm. Al knew what I knew because I kept him up to date with what I was learning from the hotline. It was near the end of a song. When the final notes drifted away he opened the mike and I leaned in and told the community that we had a very heavy storm cell coming our way and that it had produced a damaging tornado. I asked everyone to stay tuned for further updates that this cell was about a half hour away and begin to think of moving to a place of safety should it become necessary. We went back to normal programming knowing full well we would be interrupting again in mere moments.
With this new information I recalculated the storms progress and had pretty well figured out the path of the storm would likely take it through the south part of Lawton and exit out the east side of town. Understand, I wasn’t authorized by any official to make an announcement as such but it helped me to understand what we were about to face.
There is one interesting side note story to this event. As I mentioned earlier, K-LAW at that moment in time had no sophisticated equipment or information gathering technology. I had assigned someone to start monitoring the police and fire department frequencies on the scanner. If anything happened in town that would be the first place we’d hear anything. I also took out my own personal transistor radio and started to monitor all of my competitors to, in effect, steal any information they might share so we could add it to our coverage. It was like we were flying almost blind into an event I and my staff had never faced before. We needed all the help we could get.
We had a large window that we could open on the wall right by the entrance to the newsroom. We pulled it up as high as it would go. The sky was getting really dark. What had appeared as a heavy fog throughout most of the afternoon was blowing away from the sky and was getting darker by the moment.
Right at 5:55pm the hotline jangled again. We were told that the tornado was on the ground and that it was going to come into town in the next ten minutes. We were told they were about to sound the tornado sirens and that the storm’s path will likely take it through the southern part of the city and is expected to exit out the east side; however this announcement was for the entire city. We were told it was imperative that people seek cover now. If people are in mobile homes they need to get out to a more formidable structure.
When the announcement was over I walked directly over to the console and tapped Big Al on the shoulder and said, “This is it. We need to tell ‘em to take cover.” Al calmly potted down the music and I went on the air and said, “Ladies & gentlemen, we have just received word from the Comanche County Emergency management Office that a tornado warning has been issued for Lawton & Comanche county. There is a tornado on the round and coming toward Lawton at approximately 40 miles per hour. You’re being asked to take cover. Go to a place of safety. Do not panic but take some positive action right now. This is not a drill. Spotters have confirmed the tornado is on the ground and is expected to arrive in Lawton within the next ten minutes. Again take some positive action and do it right now. If you live in a mobile home you are asked to find a safer place.”
As I was making the announcement the tornado sirens across the street on top of the Comanche Courthouse went off. You could clearly hear them on the air. There was something eerie and surrealistic about that moment. It was in a sense a reality check too. This was really happening. The impact of the moment struck me. For the first time, I really realized we were all in danger. We are on the top floor of a two story building, looking out the window looking for the tornado. Seems pretty silly now. If we had just looked out of the GM’s office window we would have seen it as it passed not a block and a half away from us as it collapsed the roof on the JC Penny store of the mall being built across the street from us.
As soon as I got off the air from making the announcement I sent the whole radio station staff that was still there into the stairwell between the first and second floor. I stayed in the stairwell about two minutes and went back to the control room where Al was still broadcasting. I looked out the open window again and the sky took on this sickening pea green color. It was something I had never seen before. It was ominous. I admit to having a wave of nausea as I pondered the possibilities. I must have been scared but it didn’t consciously strike me right then. I was busy and heavily invested in the moment. That is the only time I remember being afraid for my own safety. It didn’t last but a moment.
Suddenly the rain came down in a torrent. I ran to the window and closed it. At that moment little did I realize that not more than three or four blocks away due south of us the tornado was passing through the intersection of 2nd & Lee Blvd tearing up a gas station and a car paint & body shop. Miraculously, Salas’s Mexican Restaurant survived the onslaught while buildings all around it were collapsing and others being savaged beyond repair including a hospital.
One of my part time weekend DJs worked for the Pepsi Cola Company as a delivery driver. He was driving into the intersection as the tornado approached. He told me he saw it and knew he could not get his truck turned around to avoid the funnel. He tried to stop it but he bailed out of the cab of the still moving truck and left it on a dead run trying to keep from being sucked up by the atmospheric rope that was pulling in debris from all around it. He called me within minutes to give me his breathless story. It was scary to listen to hear him tell it.
The storm did exactly what the Emergency Management Center predicted. It came through the south part of town and went out the east side. Now we would have to deal with the aftermath in terms of personal and property damage. Remember this happened about 5: 05 and it would soon be dark. Things like this always appear worse in the dark.
In just moments, we were barraged with phone calls with people giving us eye witness accounts, damage reports, electricity outages, people looking for their loved ones. In a heartbeat we went from being a fun loving bunch of country DJ’s to a committed news staff. Everything got very serious. That was not our plan when we got up that morning but it was the set of circumstances that were dealt to us. As we were prone to say in those days, “Deal with it!” from the moment the storm hit were in the news & information mode. Al, as I recall stayed on the air past his shift. He was more experienced than our new part timers. We needed to have our best people there especially during early in the coverage. We needed to be a calming voice. I can’t explain how it happened but it just did–the professionalism just kicked in. It wasn’t a conscious decision on our part. I didn’t have to remind anyone–everyone just naturally knew what to do and what was expected of them. To this day, I couldn’t be prouder of the entire staff. Every one of them performed as real professionals. They each stepped up to the plate and are to be commended for their performance.
At the top of the hour, I noticed that the tornado had made the national news on the network. We were also talked about on the Associated Press teletype. It would be the last time I recall seeing anything about the Lawton tornado because at that very moment an even more terrible set of circumstances was playing themselves out just 52 miles south of us in Wichita Falls, TX. It was being ravaged by a tornado whose size was hard to comprehend.
Within a half hour, our GM Paul Hughes, and there might have been some other staff members who went out to find out what they could about the damage and storm aftermath in Lawton. I went to go check it out for myself after we got through the 6 PM hour. By then it was beginning to get dark. As I walked around the 2nd & Lee area I saw things I had only heard about before. I saw straw and blades of grass literally blown into fence post much like poison darts. This was grass stuck into the wood. Trees were leafless and bent in strange gnarly positions. Pink house insulation was packed in tree tops. Buildings left standing were marked up from the flying debris that struck the structures. The Southwestern hospital looked like it took a hell of a beating. It apparently was still operating but would later close down for good. One gasoline station was completely stripped off its slab leaving only the gas pumps. It was strange and hard to take it all in.
We did have some early reports of many families whose homes were destroyed or badly damaged and were effectively homeless. Within an hour or two we were already accepting donations of clothes and money for the victims. When I returned to the station from my scouting mission about an hour later it was completely dark and that is when I got the first reports of our sister city to the south, Wichita Falls. The initial reports were almost unbelievable. The destruction being described there challenged the most fertile minds. We would soon learn that tornado was at least a half mile wide and was on the ground for 6 miles gutting the heart of Wichita Falls. Ours in Lawton was pretty bad but the Wichita tornado dwarfed anything that happened in Lawton. Essentially, 20,000 people in Wichita Falls were homeless in 10 terrifying minutes!
At some point that evening, I got a phone call from Austin wanting to know what had happened in Lawton and then the conversation turned to the Wichita Falls storm. Because it was in Texas, Austin wanted me or someone to go down there and see if we could get some audio sound bites for them to use in Austin. I knew I was going to need to get an early start so I headed out to grab something to eat about ten that evening and then headed over to the Montego Bay hotel where I was staying until I could get Zee and myself moved up to Lawton.
I tried to call her. I couldn’t get through because most of the landlines went through WF. Considering all the problems they were having there I didn’t see much point in trying much longer. I gave up and set the alarm. Just then my phone rang and it was my sister-in-law Gaye in Canyon, TX near Amarillo. She asked if I was alright. It turns out Zee couldn’t reach me either but they could talk to each other. So Gaye called me for an update and she called Zee to relay the message. I got to bed near midnight.
The next morning we were still dealing with the aftermath of the storm. Emergency crews had been working throughout the night to restore power and clearing away rubble. The Salvation Army and the Red Cross were on the scene providing the much needed services only they could deliver. On the air we were disseminating information from various agencies and letting everyone know what had happened and what was being done to reestablish the ebb and flow of everyday life. As the cleanup was beginning to take shape we were reporting the grim statistics. Lawton suffered three dead and 109 were injured during the few minutes of terror. Hundreds of businesses were impacted ranging everything from total loss to minimal damage. The morning after had ushered in a day with heavy hearts and minds.
On my way to the studio that morning I picked up a copy of the Constitution to read about the storm and the harrowing experience we as a community endured less than a day before. As I mentioned before, because we were so ill equipped, I resorted to monitoring our competition to glean whatever information we could from them. Something interesting came out of that process. Even though we all had access to the same hotline and received the same information at the same time, not everyone used it. That amazes me even to this day.
When were told to advise everyone to take cover, we were monitoring the other stations to see what they were saying and how they were covering the disaster. Amazingly, one of the other station’s announcers halfway joked about the impending situation saying that “We’ve had these kinds of things before and they almost always turn out to be nothing to worry about and that if anything happened we’ll let you know.” It might not be the exact wording but that was certainly the gist of the idea. I couldn’t believe what I was listening to. I remember thinking at the time it was criminal. How could you callously place people in danger like that? Yet, I tell you; it happened. That is how I remember the moment.
Looking back now, each of us dealt with the event in our own ways but again the staff pulled together and we all knew we had to forge ahead. The radio station became a conduit of information. We would pass along vital information from the authorities to the public and we would also do what we could for the citizens looking for goods, services or other people. As I recall we stayed in this mode for a couple of days. As Lawton came back into normalcy we began to get back to playing music but quick to interrupt the programming if we had anything newsworthy to pass along.
As I scanned the storm stories in the paper, one eye witness account caught my eye. A survivor recounted how he heard the warning on the radio with the sirens blaring in the background. He grabbed two other coworkers and piled into the small bathroom. The tornado hit their building at full force. The paint & body shop was completely destroyed. After the freight train like noise passed they came out of what was left of the bathroom to find the business completely gone. He said, “That guy on the radio saved our lives.” The hair on my arms came up. I knew they had been listening to us at K-LAW. These were the men from the paint and body shop where I had picked up the van just the day before. I knew they were listening to us because they had raved about the station and were so happy about the country format change. Had we left the vehicle there it would have likely been left in a crumpled heap a few blocks away. It was a good thing we picked it up when we did.