AUSTIN (KXAN) – The rain burned Kristin LaFrance’s skin when she awoke in her from yard. Moments earlier, an F5 tornado swept over her neighborhood. The 9-year-old girl’s home was obliterated. All that remained was the concrete slab. Even the asphalt had been torn from the street.
It’s been 25 years since Kristin lay in the grass, her skin covered in deep gashes. Twenty-five years since she heard her father’s last words, “hold on tight.” Twenty-five years since her childhood ended. She sat across from us in a leather recliner, nervous but finally ready to talk after all these years.
For the past few months, the KXAN First Warning Weather team has spoken with survivors and witnesses of what happened May 27, 1997. Many are still haunted by that day and the powerful storms that ripped through their lives and killed 27 of their family and friends.
‘It was perfectly sunny’
May 27, 1997, was your average May day in Central Texas.
“You might have a severe thunderstorm or two, but never in our wildest dreams could we imagine that the atmosphere could produce what it ended up producing that day,” said Jim Spencer, KXAN’s chief forecaster in 1997.
Many people tell us the same thing.
“It was perfectly sunny. It was a normal Tuesday,” Stephanie Erwin said. She was the manager of the Chili’s in Round Rock at the time.
“The restaurant was pretty full, if you can believe it or not. Chili’s was one of the only sit-down restaurants in Round Rock at the time. So we’re busy all the time.”
Mallory Cantler Sumner was running errands with her mother in Jarrell that morning. She was 8 years old and was most concerned about going swimming.
“We needed to go to the post office, we needed to go and you know, pick up some groceries,” she said.
Mallory remembers passing the Igo family’s autoshop as they ran errands.
“My sister went to high school with them. So we were all friendly. I remember driving through town waving at the Igo boys,” she said.
Later that day, the entire Igo family would be killed in the tornado.
From beautiful to menacing
“The sky just got progressively darker,” said former KXAN reporter Catenya McHenry.
“It was a very eerie feeling because it was not only dark, but part of the sky was like — it was like hints of green. We had never seen that before,” she recalled.
McHenry said the day was very peaceful, “almost like nature was settled.”
KXAN News anchor Robert Hadlock said the day before, Jim Spencer warned there was a chance for severe weather in the forecast.
“We came in the next day,” Hadlock said. “And he was quite concerned about what he was seeing.”
Spencer said he came into work at his usual time — early afternoon. Nothing was happening in the Austin area. But farther north, storms had begun firing up in Waco. He remembered there were “at least as I recall, six or seven tornado touchdowns.”
He says they didn’t expect the front to actually fire a storm that day. But — “Tornadoes were developing and they were coming toward Williamson County.”
‘Mom, are we going to die?’
Spencer watched the storm approach the Jarrell area and decided it was time to take action. KXAN was the first Austin news station to cut into programming and issue a warning.
“We started warning people in Jarrell in 25, 30 minutes before the tornado actually developed,” Spencer said.
Mallory and her sisters finished swimming. Her mother rushed them inside as the clouds grew darker overhead. Her mom turned on KXAN.
“As we were going to shelter in the hallway, Jim Spencer was broadcasting,” Mallory said.
Spencer’s voice echoed down the hall: “If you live in a mobile home in the general area, you need to get out of the mobile home right now and get to another place.”
Mallory remembered going to her bedroom with her mom and pulling the mattress off her bed. Mallory, her mom and sisters grabbed the handles on the mattress’ sides.
“I remember asking my mom, ‘Mom, are we going to die?’ She said ‘I don’t know, sweetie.’ She said, ‘but we’re just going to pray. And let’s all hang on to the mattress.'”
“You couldn’t even see out the windows,” Mallory said. “Our house was completely black. And then it got quiet. Very very, very quiet.”
Then, Mallory said what sounded like a freight train moved past their home.
The family sat there in the hallway even after it grew silent outside once again. Finally, they walked to the door and looked out. Baseball-sized hail littered their yard. Mallory said the rain had mostly stopped.
“We all looked up and we looked over the horizon. And we realized that there’s nothing on the horizon anymore.”
Mallory could see the Double Creek Estates subdivision from her backdoor: a street with a few houses and several dozen residents. Nothing was there anymore.
“I remember thinking, ‘well, that’s odd.’ As an eight year old — ‘Wonder what happened?’ And then we started to hear sirens,” Mallory said.
The windows were ‘bowing in’
Meanwhile, as Mallory and her family hunkered down, people started pouring into the Round Rock Chili’s. “They weren’t coming in to eat. They were coming off of I-35,” said Stephanie, the Chili’s manager. “They weren’t hungry. They were seeking shelter.”
Twenty miles north on Interstate 35, KXAN photographer Mike Price caught video that would quickly spread around the world: An F5 tornado slowly churning over the Double Creek Estates subdivision.
Robert Hadlock was dispatched from the news station and told to drive north along I-35. Texas law enforcement had shut down the interstate, worried the tornado would shift south-east across it. Drivers sought shelter, hiding under overpasses and in ditches.
Stephanie said people were visibly shaken. That’s when she noticed something unusual happening.
“The windows of the restaurant were breathing. They were bowing in,” she said.
People sit next to the windows in most Chili’s, with a bar in the middle of the restaurant. Stephanie quickly told people to get behind the bar. She ran to the back of the restaurant, and in an effort to relieve the pressure, she opened the kitchen’s back door.
“About that time, I saw a table flipping down the parking lot end over end.” The roof of the restaurant next door was ripped off. Stephanie tried to close the door.
But she couldn’t. The powerful storm outside made it impossible. She pulled on it with all her might.
“There was a girl. It was a server,” Stephanie said. “I’ll never forget her. She’s standing in the kitchen. She’s bawling.”
“She couldn’t do anything except cry and I’m screaming at her. ‘It’s gonna be OK!'”
Robert Hadlock was stuck with other motorists. His crew pulled over and set up, going on-air as rain poured around them. It was here, on the side of the road, that Hadlock first saw the video of the F5.
He said that it wasn’t until that moment that he understood the breadth of the tornado and the magnitude of the situation.
He wasn’t the only one. Jim Spencer, thinking the tornado was an F3 or F4 tornado, spoke with a photographer from Oklahoma.
“He tells me that this storm to him looks a whole lot like one he shot near Pampa, Texas, a couple of years ago. A tornado that was rated F5,” Spencer said over the air.
‘Strongest wind that nature can make on the planet’
F5 tornadoes are extremely rare. The Jarrell one was three-quarters of a mile wide, with winds that ranged from 260 mph to 300 mph. This tornado had the strongest winds on the planet.
“Not even a hurricane can produce winds that strong,” Spencer said.
Back in 1997, tornadoes were still measured using the Fujita scale, F0 to F12. The scale was developed by Ted Fujita at the University of Chicago in 1971. The scale measures the intensity of a tornado and the damage it caused. While Dr. Fujita did design a scale to 12, the Tornado F rating was only designed to be F0-F5, with an F5 being the most intense tornado possible.
An F5 was classified as any tornado with a wind speed capable of flattening a building.
“(Dr. Fujita) kind of thought that, you know, wind speeds of 260 to 300 miles per hour were needed to totally flatten and destroy a house or a building,” said Paul Yura with The National Weather Service office in New Braunfels.
In 2006, the Fujita scale was replaced with the Enhanced Fujita scale. The scale uses EF0 to EF5 to rate tornadoes.
“The damage is the same for most scales. It just that the actual wind speeds that we equate are a little bit lower,” Yura said.
The new EF scale more accurately equates damage with wind speed. Scientists at the wind laboratory at Texas Tech University helped create the new scale by testing out very objects in high winds.
“No one alive had ever seen a tornado like that here in any of our Central Texas area,” Spencer said.
“Here in South Central Texas, about 80% of our tornadoes that we’ve had over the last 60 years or so have been in the EF0, EF1 scale,” Yura said. “When you start talking about EF4’s and EF5 tornadoes, like the Jarrell EF5, you’re talking about catastrophic sort of damage.”
‘I remember my dad saying “Hold on tight”‘
Kristin LaFrance was 9-years old when catastrophe hit her home. She lived with her mom, dad and had three older siblings. Her father, Billy, worked nights. Her mother worked days, but happened to be off the day of the tornado.
“I remember my mom told me to go get my dad,” Kristin said. Her parents talked quietly, watching the news on TV and preparing for the tornado.
“My parents are kind of standing there in the doorway and they’re looking out, you know, outside and I remember kind of squeezing in between them,” Kristin said. “I could see, like, off in the distance you know, just this one little, like very skinny little string.”
Her dad told her to grab the cushions off the couch and take them to the bathroom. They all gathered there and Kristin got in the tub, her back against the wall. Her mother sat in front of her. There wasn’t enough room in the tub, so Billy squatted next to it.
As the tornado they saw approached the subdivision, several tiny tornadoes merged into the F5. Residents watched as it crossed the street into the neighborhood.
Garlyn Elliot lived in the Double Creek Estates subdivision. She was at work, but her son and his pregnant fiancé were home. Garlyn said survivors told her that her son sat on the porch and watched as the tornado approached. He and his fiancé died that day.
Kristin said that she heard what sounded like pots and pans, not a freight train, as the tornado approached. “I remember my dad saying ‘Hold on tight’.”
She said in an instant, everything was gone. The wall behind her fell and starting pushing her down. Dirt filled her mouth and she struggled to breathe. “I remember trying to, like, spit it out.”
Then everything went black.
‘Pulled that old oak tree straight up out of the ground’
Back in Austin, Catenya McHenry heard reports about another tornado touching down in Cedar Park. The education reporter doesn’t remember the original story she was working on that day. She dropped it and was told to chase the tornadoes in north Austin.
“We could see the funnel cloud, like, in the distance,” McHenry said. She and her photographer whipped out a map, using it to find a route around the barricades so they could chase the storm. “I remember telling my photographer ‘just figure out a way.’ Like I’m yelling at him. He’s like, ‘look at the map and look at the map.'”
The tornado they chased ripped through a shopping center in Cedar Park. No one there was injured, but the front of the stores were torn apart. The tornado took the roof off of a nearby Albertson’s.
“There were several people injured. It could have been much worse. The manager of that store herded a lot of the customers into the refrigeration units that are protected by steel doors, and it managed to save a lot of people that day,” Robert Hadlock said.
Rail cars from a nearby museum were tossed about. The tornado then dropped into the Buttercup Creek subdivision. Robert Hadlock said 136 homes were damaged and 11 were destroyed by the twister.
“I saw it go behind that house, behind my house, right across my backyard. It pulled that old oak tree straight up out of the ground 100 feet in the air and crashed it down on my house,” one resident of the subdivision told KXAN crews at the time.
McHenry said she was sent to an area right off of State Highway 71 in Travis County. She spoke to a man who lived in a trailer there, as well as someone who worked in emergency management.
“He told the guy ‘Don’t go back because we have another system moving our way,'” McHenry said. “It was a matter of minutes. He went back and he was killed.”
Kristin awoke in her front yard. The rain stung as it hit the gashes on her body. A large chunk of her right arm had been torn away. She had a long slash on her hip going around to her behind. A cut on her knee. A cut on the back of her head. No broken bones.
She said she could lift her left arm and her head, but nothing else. She looked around and saw her home was gone. The bathtub that she sat in moments before had disintegrated around her. She said to this day they have never found any piece of it.
She heard a screaming — what she said was an unnatural screaming from several feet away. It was her mother, her jaw broken, buried beneath a tree. Kristin said she recognized her by her gold watch.
Her father was nowhere in sight.
Later, she learned he died. Her aunt had to identify him by looking at a Polaroid photo. Garlyn Elliot said she identified her son and his fiancé the same way.
Kristin told her mother she would call for help. She shouted and attracted the attention of a man and woman. She doesn’t know who they were.
A helicopter couldn’t land to help, so they had to wait for an ambulance.
First responders shut down the entrance into the community. The damage was horrific. They worried people would stumble across bodies.
Mallory, who lived down the road from the Double Creek Estates, says she remembers her mom driving up the road and turning around because dead cattle were strewn everywhere. Later, dozens were reported killed. Her family was trapped for a time at their home while the roads were shut down.
Garlyn tried to get to her home, but was stopped by a first responder. She wanted to check on it and her family. He told her “there’s nothing there.”
“You can have F5 tornadoes, and still have a little bit of the structure left,” Jim Spencer said recently as he walked through the Double Creek Estate, remembering that day.
“Most of the subdivision was nothing left but foundations out here,” Spencer said. “The homes were gone. Cars — there were dozens and dozens of cars. They were never found. The tornado was moving so slowly with winds of 260 mph to 300 mph. It just ground everything up”
McHenry said she didn’t realize a weather system could do that.
“It’s as if you just like, you know, peel off a piece of paper and throw it in the wind. That’s what it was like looking at where houses stood. You couldn’t even tell there were houses,” she said.
Jim Spencer, standing in front of the memorial built to honor the 27 killed, remembers the stories.
The Igo family, an entire family of five. A park now sits where their house was, named in their honor.
Michael Ruiz, age 14, and Johnny Ruiz, age 15, left their mobile home and ran to a neighbors’ home. They didn’t survive.
Billy LaFrance ensured his wife and daughter we safe in the bathtub.
Kristin and her mother were taken to the hospital. They spent exactly a month in recovery. The gash in her hip caused nerve damage. She said she can’t run or jump to this day.
‘It’s as if it sucked the life out of the ground’
President George W. Bush, then governor of Texas, visited the site.
“Governor Bush went up there a couple of days after and said it was the worst tornado he’s ever seen,” Robert Hadlock said.
“The tornado hits. And it’s as if it sucked the life out of the ground,” Gov. Bush said at the time.
The months and years that followed were hard. Friends and family were buried. A community center and memorial were built in their honor.
“I will watch KXAN forever because that is who we were watching on the day of the tornado,” Mallory said. It was just one of the things that has stuck with her. “Such death and destruction at such an early age makes you think about what’s important in life.”
She said there was funeral after funeral, but her parents kept her shielded from them. “I don’t remember attending the funerals. I don’t know that I even did.”
Things have changed in the past 25 years. Paul Yura with the National Weather Service said faster computers and innovations with doppler radar have made it possible to detect the potential for tornado outbreaks days in advance.
Many families returned to the Double Creek Estates. Kristin’s home was rebuilt. Garlyn’s was rebuilt, but at a spot further down the road. Only a couple of lots remain vacant today.
For Kristin, it was never the same. Two of her friends that lived across the street were gone. She’d ride her bike down that street and remember what happened. “Just being around — like the houses were gone and, like, you knew they weren’t coming back, and so that was hard.”
Kristin worries Jarrell’s recent growth could lead to people forgetting that day.
“I get that no town wants to be known as like ‘the tornado town’ but I just don’t want people to forget it either. A lot of people were affected and, like, a lot of families, and they deserve to be remembered,” Kristin said.
Mallory is more hopeful.
“You can never forget the history and the roots of what made Jarrell, Jarrell before May 27, 1997, and I think as long as you never forget, then that means that Jarrell is still partially the same place that it should be,” Mallory said. “And maybe changes for the better.”
No F5 tornadoes have hit Texas since the Jarrell tornado.