Do You Remember…The 1960 Tornado?

In an awful coincidence, the day after we published this story in our Print Edition, two separate EF1 tornadoes descended onto Sapulpa.

May 5,1960, is a day that is indelibly etched into my memory. It started as a normal spring day in Oklahoma. The night before there were thunderstorms, tornadoes, hail, and high winds across the state. Thursday, however, started out partly sunny and warm. I remember playing on the wet playground at Jefferson Elementary. As I was walking home from school, I observed the clouds building to the west.

The sky got increasingly darker throughout the afternoon. By 5:30, the sky really started looking weird. Recently, I spoke to Joy Naifeh, who remembered the same eerie green glow that I recall that afternoon. The air was quite still and oppressively sticky.

Around 6:15, Dad went up the street to Safeway to get a few items Mom needed for dinner. The sky started turning exceptionally dark, followed by heavy rain and high wind gusts. As the sirens went off, I ran into my bedroom and looked out the back window, facing south, and saw the tornado in the southwest sky. It was white, almost luminescent, and appeared barrel-shaped. My mother screamed for me to get under the bed. I was completely and utterly mesmerised by that rotating column of air. Finally, I crawled under the bed, seconds before a small tree fell on the roof over my bedroom.

There was a sound like a freight train roaring off in the distance. It never got very loud and the sound faded as the winds subsided. My first thought was about my father, he had not come home from the store. As it turned out, the employees and customers got into the meat locker and weathered the storm in relative safety. I remember Dad saying they had trouble getting the doors to open without electricity.

Our neighborhood was relatively unscathed, save a few small trees damaged. The northwest side of town did not fare quite so well. The damage was beyond belief and almost a thousand people were left homeless. The municipal water pumping station had been damaged and for over 24 hours the only water Sapulpa had was what was in the storage tank. The Pro Shop at the Golf Course was leveled, and the American Legion Ballfield suffered heavy damage. Ray Monger’s Gas Station was heavily damaged, a section of the roof of Wickham Packing Company was torn off, and small building at Sapulpa Brick and Tile was severely damaged.

This excerpt from The Sapulpa Daily Herald the day after the tornado shows the aftermath and the damage it caused. It was the worst tornado to his Sapulpa in recorded history.

Richard Hermes, who owned and operated the brick plant, said the tornado had come in from Kellyville, but when it hit the clay pit at the brick plant, it turned nearly 90 degrees and headed north. He said if it had stayed on the original path, it would have destroyed much of downtown Sapulpa. This sudden turn was mentioned in the “Sapulpa Daily Herald” in an article on May 6th, 1960. It stated: “The twister turned almost due north at that point, ripping into the Negro (sic) residential community on the ‘hill’.”

This section of town was utterly devastated. Booker T. Washington School was described as a “total loss” by School Superintendent, Noel Vaughn. Mt. Olive Baptist Church was destroyed, and Lee Birmingham’s BBQ establishment was razed. The three deaths occured in that area. Lee Birmingham died when the roof of his business collapsed on him, Lillie Wright was found in a field north of the Armory (Heart of Route 66 Museum), George Thomas was found in the wreckage of a home near Booker T. Washington School.

After demolishing Booker T. Washington School, the tornado lifted briefly, descending just north of the Turnpike Gate, destroying homes and injuring residents living west and north of the Turnpike entrance. The twister lifted once more heading toward Tulsa. Several businesses on Highway 66, going toward Tulsa, were heavily damaged, including Sapulpa Sporting Goods Marine Center.

One disturbing detail of the storm is that people on the northside of town apparently did not hear any sirens, and were caught unaware. According to newspaper reports, one woman, who lived by the Turnpike Gate, said she did not hear any sirens. She further stated that the radio said it was all clear, so she turned the radio off. Within seconds the tornado struck. Another resident said he was looking out the door and told his wife there was going to be a tornado; the next thing he remembered was being pulled out of the wreckage of his home by his neighbor and being put in his car. Again, no mention of a siren.

This has been called the deadliest tornado to ever hit Sapulpa. I can say for a fact, it is the worst in my lifetime. Fifty-seven people were injured, twenty-four were hospitalized and three dead. Property damage was astronomical.

This deadly tornado was an F5 that formed near Prague, Oklahoma, and travelled over seventy miles in its path of destruction. This twister was part of a tornado outbreak in the Great Plains and the Southeast, that occured from May 4th-May 6th,1960.

This horrific event, nearly 60 years ago, should serve as reminder to be cognizant of the weather during storm season. We should also be grateful for the technology that allows us to have ample warning so we can take shelter.

About the Author

Long-time Sapulpa resident, Charles Betzler, followed his father, Charlie, into the radio and TV repair business. At age 9, he fixed his first broken radio and his first love is vintage audio equipment. In his 50 + years of technical work, graduation from OSUIT, and years of Continuing Education, Charles, in his capacity as Emergency Management Director of nearby city, designed the Emergency Operations Center, and the radio-activation system for the sirens. In his long career, he has repaired every type of consumer electronics from black-and-white TVs to the latest lap-top.

  • Avatar Ross Rainwater says:

    My family was having supper when it hit–no sirens. Why? A primary reason was lack of 2-way radios for the Auxiliary Police (AP). Roy Rainwater, my dad, was an original member, & AP Chief by then, IIRC. (Leroy Adams was the 1st.)
    When the cab company next to First Christian Church (Ace?) upgraded their radios, they donated old ones to the AP. Donation allowed AP members to act as tornado spotters. One-by-one, the old radios failed, stopping the AP spotter capabilities. So, no early warning the day of this tragedy.
    In the aftermath, questions about “no warnings or sirens” arose, revealing funds for new radios had been authorized but not released.
    Soon afterward, the AP had state-of-the-art portable car radios about the size of a square tackle box, better than even the Sapulpa police department’s!
    I accompanied Dad several times afterward as a 2-man spotter team, setting up on the south side of Reservoir Hill for an umpteen-mile-view to the entire panorama south of Sapulpa, east to west. That location gave us excellent radio contact with other teams & SPD. We saw — & reported — many funnel clouds visible at night in distant lightning flashes.
    With the new radios, Sapulpa once again had some of the best early-warning tornado protection of any town anywhere in our area.

    • Avatar Donna Andrew Smith says:

      Yes, Ross, no timely sirens. My Grandfather was the SPD dispatcher on that day (Artie Holderby). By the time he got the order to turn on the sirens, all the distruction was going on. He blamed himself for much of the havic & loss of lives though it was not his fault at all. I have lots of memories of that storm but so many more of my Dad being with the AP & doing so much when it stormed (John Andrew).

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