'Tis the season
Severe weather season in the Concho Valley peaks in the month of May. Sixty-five years ago, Mother Nature punctuated this fact on the 11th day of the month as a half-mile wide tornado churned through the heart of Lake View, reducing structures to splinters, twisting steel like bendy straws, and taking 13 souls to meet their maker on a day that many want to forget — but will always remember.
The tornado leveled a wide swath of homes near Lake View High School at the corner of Bowie and 42nd Street. The heavier brick and mortar building survived, but not without major damage. Witnesses said the tornado lifted just as it hit the school, taking most of its roof with it.
Typewriters with paper inserted were silent testament to how hastily they were abandoned as students escaped to the relative safety of hallways and the gym— narrowly missing the heavy roof collapsing, crushing their desks and exposing sky.
A photograph taken just after the twister hit the school shows rain pouring in through a compromised roof, students trying to comfort each other, trying to make sense of what just happened, and attending to the wounded as best they could as they waited for rescuers and transport to aid and safety.
A stark image would meet the students as they exited what was left of their school: Foundations alone where homes once were. Cars tossed like toys — crumpled and stacked against each other. Slivers of debris that once comprised homes and familiar places scattered everywhere with no respect for the man-made boundaries of streets and blocks. A clear view created by a now-empty horizon.
Burt Terrill, former mayor of San Angelo, was at home sick that day. He recalls "our home was on the south edge of the tornado. We put on football helmets because the hail was coming down so hard. Then it sounded like a freight train went by very near the house. It suddenly quit, and then there was just gentle rain falling.
"I went outside.
"The breezeway and garage roof of the house was blown away. The storm went right down 41st street and lifted just as it went over Lake View High School taking off most of its roof. I saw foundations with nothing on them. Some foundations only had a commode or tub left on them. A 2x4 was stuck through a telephone pole.
"It was an experience I will always remember."
The Lake View community has always had a feeling of being a tight-knit people, coming together and standing for each other when it counted. The task ahead, to rebuild what was stripped away so fast, may have seemed insurmountable.
But the community did rebound.
Sixty-five years later, the San Angelo Cowboy Church offers worship services on the same spot where the Rocket Drive-In Theater once screened the day's biggest movies to cars lined up in neat arcs behind the huge screen. Even today, an aerial view still reveals faint remnants of the evenly-spaced arcs where movie-goers once parked, ate popcorn and candy and drank soda. And a teenager might even steal a kiss from his gal.
On Grape Creek Road, the Auto Wrangler Livestock Building sits almost exactly where the original San Angelo Stock Show and Rodeo bleachers stood. The bleachers and awnings were damaged beyond repair by the twister, but just six years later in 1959, the new 5,260-seat multi-purpose San Angelo Coliseum was opened to the public. It was the new home of the San Angelo Stock Show and Rodeo, which has consistently held its own as the fourth largest stock show and rodeo in the United States. In March of 2011, the structure's moniker was changed to its current Foster Communications Coliseum.
Where a show barn that was completely shredded to splinters on the fairgrounds once entertained visitors, is now home to the HEB Community Center — a multi-use facility primarily used for livestock shows, sales, concerts and dances, petting zoos and other vendors.
A modern, new Lake View High School building at 900 E. 43rd street now serves the students of the area. The current building was built after a catastrophic fire leveled the entire structure in 1998.
According to a history compiled by the 1955 Lake View Lions Club, a new high school was built in 1946, with the original high school building being remodeled and made into a junior high. The twister affected the entire campus, causing $235,000 (1953 dollars, approx. $2,196,449 today). Repairs were completed and the school system opened on time for the 1953-54 classes.
A modern Lincoln Middle School at a new location, 255 E. 50th street, replaced the old, and was dedicated on September 15, 2000. The main structure at the campus on Bowie and 42nd street was demolished in 2014, with only a few buildings spared to serve as classrooms and storage.
Are we prepared if it happens again?
Watch next Friday's installment of KSAN Chief Meteorologist Josh Johns' report on the twister, exploring the question, "Are we prepared if it happens again?"
Exclusive: Home movie of the aftermath of the tornado
Sixty-five years later
A stark comparison of the landscape in 1953 after the tornado that claimed 13 lives and injured 159 to today, sixty-five years later.
The walls come tumbling down
In 2014, much of the campus at Bowie and 42nd Street was demolished, ending an era. A monument dedicated to the Lake View school district now stands at the location.
Demolition photos by Ken Grimm