Radio and the 1953 Waco Tornado

Original Airdate: May 10 (2011)

This is Living Stories, featuring voices from the collections of the Baylor University Institute for Oral History. I'm Louis Mazé.

On May 11, 1953, at 4:36 p.m., a deadly F-5 tornado plowed into downtown Waco. Local radio stations immediately switched over to
24-hour emergency broadcasting, keeping citizens abreast of the latest developments.

Robert C. Martin was local news editor for KWTX in 1953 and tells
of his experience that Monday afternoon:

"I was on the telephone with the National Weather Service, and they told me that all danger of a tornado had passed. So I broadcast that, and I called the local police department, as I did every day just for daily update. And the call was misdirected to an upstairs office, and some young lady who was a secretary upstairs answered the phone. And she was screaming, and she said, ‘There are cars flying around the square!' And the tornado was passing over the city hall at that exact moment. So I picked up my little tape recorder, which had a wet-cell battery, unusual in those days, and I took that little recorder to the scene downtown and recorded what I was seeing. And I'm talking to people as they're throwing bricks out. And I say, ‘What is your name?' And they would tell me. ‘What are you doing?' ‘We're trying to uncover this person down below. He's trapped below.'"

Martin further describes his broadcasts:

"When there would be a fatality, the ambulance driver told me, ‘I'll play my siren so you'll know we're taking a dead person.' And so I would report, ‘Well, here goes another.' And I would have a—kind of a running account as to how many people had been taken out. The mayor and the people in authority, I would get their comments, which were very valuable because it gave the people at home a sense that somebody's in charge, and they're going to do what is necessary to get us out of this. And it—it kind of brought the community together."

M. N. "Buddy" Bostick, founder and longtime manager of KWTX, recalls an innovative broadcast he carried out:

"Our chief engineer contacted the Waco airport tower and entered into an agreement with them that we could go fly around Waco and describe the tornado damage. I was a pilot, and when you're a pilot, you think in terms of what you can do as a pilot."

WACO announcer Goodson McKee remembers the last person to be rescued from the tornado wreckage:

"Miss Matkin was the telephone operator at the R. T. Dennis [& Co.] furniture store. They worked and extricated her from the rubble of the building early the next morning. She was hospitalized at Hillcrest [Memorial] Hospital, and I took a tape recorder out there and did an interview with Miss Matkin who had survived the big crash of the furniture store."

LIFE magazine also featured Lillie Matkin in an article later that month about the storm. The tornado of 1953 took 114 lives, injured nearly 600, and changed the look and feel of downtown Waco forever. But, with the help of local radio broadcasters, Waco emerged from the crisis a tighter-knit community.

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