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For a brief moment in time the attention of the world was focused on
the demolished town. The disaster was followed by an influx of aid from
across the state and nation. Within a year most of the destroyed homes
and buildings were rebuilt, plus a few new ones were added.
Now, 10 years later, Saragosa has settled back into its slumber.
Driving through the town it seems that all the attention Saragosa
received did not change its personality much. Except for two obvious
In the middle of this poor town sets a multi-purpose community center.
The center was funded by a Meadows Foundation grant and was completed by
March, 1988. Saragosa probably could never have afforded such a building
under normal circumstances.
The second exception is the new Head Start program building. A Head
Start graduation ceremony of 4-year-olds had been going on in Saragosa
Hall when the tornado struck. Rescuers dug the most bodies from the
hall. The Head Start program now has a fine, modern facility.
The Saragosa post office is located in a nice, office-style mobile
home. Postmaster Berta Begay came to the town eight years ago, two years
after the tornado struck. Most of the rebuilding in the town was
completed by the time she arrived, she said.
"Most of the rebuilding took place immediately after the tornado,"
Begay said. "The town got a quick nation-wide response that helped here
and the people are real grateful. There has been very little
construction since then."
Some Saragosa residents talk about the tornado each May. But many who
had deaths in their families are reluctant to talk about that era, Begay
Most all the survivors of the tornado are cautious about what the sky
looks like now.
"Some people cope by trying not to think about it, others talk about it
with ease," she said. "People are mostly trying to go on with their
lives. There are children to raise and people getting old that need
Jose Candelas had his grocery store rebuilt after the tragedy. Five
bodies had been removed from the Candelas grocery store and a nearby bar
immediately after the tornado struck. A walk through the sparsely
stocked store indicates that the Candelas did not benefit much from the
spotlight of attention that shone briefly on the town.
Saragosa Cemetery was also changed by the disaster. Some of the
tornado's victims are buried there with marble stones making note that a
person was put there by the tornado. One reads, "Saragosa tornado
victim. Olivia Rodriguez Contreras, Sept. 1, 1940, May 22, 1987,
EDITOR'S NOTE: The magnitude of the disaster in Saragosa on May 22,
1987, prompted the Enterprise to publish a special Saturday edition of
the paper. A complete website compilation, with photos, is in
Saragosa residents have the assurance that a siren will sound if a
threatening wall cloud heads their way, because a private foundation
donated funds for a siren after the '87 disaster.
Emergency Management Coordinator Armando Gil said the siren can be
heard in a one-mile radius of the multi-purpose center, where residents
huddle in the basement until the danger has passed.
"It can be activated from the police department here," Gil said,
referring to the office in Pecos, where the local 911 system is
maintained. "Anyone who has attended a weather spotter course and is
familiar with formation of wall clouds can call it in."
Gil said that almost everyone in Balmorhea and Saragosa are familiar
with weather spotting techniques, especially the fire department.
"I praise them a lot," he said.
Firemen who spot a cloud can go on the emergency management repeater
and radio the police department to activate the siren.
"It hasn't been activated lately," Gil said. But it is there, just in
Reporters from around the nation descended on tiny Saragosa, beginning
minutes after a tornado flattened most of the buildings on May 22, 1997.
Enterprise publisher Larry Jackson and Managing Editor Jan Pearce were
among the first to arrive, and Jackson's photo of the rescue earned him
Area television reporters arriving in helicopters put aside their
cameras and notebooks for awhile and helped rescue the injured.
Satellite trucks from major networks soon set up camp at the site and
sent live broadcasts, complete with photos of the damage, around the
While the national covergage of the disaster helped bring in donations
from groups and individuals far away from the scene, rescuers complained
that trucks and reporters got in their way as they tried to extract
victims from beneath the rubble of the Catholic church, which had been
packed for a Head Start graduation, and homes throughout the community.
In the days before cellular phones, with both phone and electrical
services out in the Saragosa area, much of the press had to travel back
and forth to Pecos in the days just after the disaster to file their
reports. Law enforcement officials also restricted access to the
disaster scene in the immediate aftermath of the storm, and reporters
were barred from going inside Balmorhea High School, which had been
turned into a temporary funeral home for the victims' families.
One reporter was arrested when he attempted to pass a funeral
procession for victims of the tornado.
Richard Thomas Brown, 31, was charged with disobeying a police officer,
a Class B. misdemeanor.
Gary Ingram, chief sheriff's deputy at the time, said he had a
roadblock set up to keep traffic out of the funeral procession from the
Saragosa Cemetery to the Balmorhea cemetery.
Brown told officers he had to get to Balmorhea, and when he refused to
obey orders to stop and wait, Ingram arrested him and placed him in his
patrol car until the procession was over, then booked him into Reeves
Coverage of the cleanup and rebuilding of homes continued for months as
donated materials rolled in from around the state, some of those goods
were stolen, and allegations of money mishandling were made.
"I call it a miracle," said Father Ralph Barringer. "It was truly a
blessing," he said.
Barringer was a pastor for the area Catholic churches when the tornado
ripped through Saragosa destroying many homes, killing 30 people and
"It was dark by the time we got to Saragosa following the tornado,"
Barringer stated that it was so dark, they couldn't even find the
"We had no sense of where we were, and we couldn't identify the
church," he said.
Barringer was out amidst the rubble looking for the tabernacle - the
"We finally located it and somebody helped me pick it up and bring it
to safety," he said.
But amidst the chaos and destruction stood two statues, left standing
following the big force that had swept through the area.
"It was just a miracle that those two statues were left standing like
that," he said.
The statues left standing were that of The Blessed Heart and the
Blessed Mother, Our Lady of Guadalupe.
"Everything else around them destroyed and just these two statues left
standing," said Barringer.
Barringer stated that he and others had just walked by that area and
had overlooked the statues.
"They were discovered the next morning amidst all the rubble," said
The statues that were left standing in the church that tragic day have
since been taken to El Paso to be displayed.
"They were displayed in the new church constructed in Saragosa at
first," said Barringer.
Even the reporters were very affected by the faith the people of
Saragosa had during this time, according to Barringer.
"That tragic event demonstrated the will of God and helped the people
to demonstrate their faith," he said.
A group of women who survived the tragic event went to Barringer and
asked him, "What did we do bad that God would punish us like this?"
"I told them, `what did you do good that God should bless you in this
way?', because this was a blessing, they were very good people,"
Barringer stated that he had been told by a former pastor in Saragosa
that only a small number of individuals attended church regularly.
"At that time we had about 70 percent of all residents attending church
regularly, and being active members of the church, making it the highest
percentage in the diocese," said Barringer.
"That's saying a lot for the residents of Saragosa," said Barringer.
Barringer explained that that is why he considered the tragic event, "a
"This was an early reward to these people," said Barringer.
Just a week before the tragedy, the church had chosen 11 leaders for
"Within one week six of these chosen leaders had perished in the
tornado," said Barringer.
"Man proposes, God disposes," said Barringer.
That was theme, and it affected reporters from all over the country,
according to Barringer.
There was a story that went around at that time, about this reporter
who wrote a really good article about the people, their religion and the
poor. About how good the poor were, according to Barringer. "The story
that went around, is that the publisher didn't want to publish this good
story, because it highlighted the poor and religion," said Barringer.
"The reporter told the publisher, `you print this story as is or I
quit,' and they finally did print it that way," said Barringer.
"But that's why I call it a `blessing' because many good things came
from this tragic event," he said.
Barringer also talked about a couple, a Jewish man who was married to a
"After he saw this tragedy and the way the people responded and their
faith, he stated that he finally understood what his wife was talking
about, about people's lives and their beliefs," said Barringer.
Map out a line going northeast, and the flat land runs out somewhere
around Pittsburgh. Tornadoes in areas east of there can happen, but are
rare once you reach the mountains.
Turn that line around and go southwest, and the flat land ends around
Saragosa, and a records check shows Reeves County has averaged about one
tornado a year for the past 40 years.
Balmorhea has seen its share of tornadoes skirt the area, and the
Balmorhea Independent School District just completed a new addition
earlier this year which is designed to double as a shelter for the
district's students. But over the years, the first town to really be
affected in "Tornado Alley" has been Saragosa.
The May 22, 1987 tornado remains the worst in the United States in
terms of loss of life since the tornado that hit Wichita Falls on April
10, 1979, killing 42 people and injuring 1700. And the seeds of the 1987
tornado that leveled most of the town were sown a half-century earlier
and about a half-mile up the road, at the curve - the only sharp turn
drivers have to negotiate in a 30 mile stretch of Texas Highway 17
between Interstates 10 and 20.
The curve is there because that's where Saragosa once was.
Incorporated in 1909, all that's left of the original Saragosa is the
two-story building belonging to Wynn Hamiliton, Jr., that sits on the
inside bend of Highway 17.
In a 1995 interview, Hamilton said the city itself was dissolved by
Reeves County Commissioners in 1946, about eight years after the twister
blew through town. All streets and alley were given back to the Hamilton
family, while a new unincorporated Saragosa settlement sprung up just to
the south of Toyah Creek.
But while relocating the community to the south put it in the path of
the storm that would do so much damage in 1987, if it had stayed north
of Toyah Creek, it would have been in the path of another twister which
came through in 1964, which Hamilton said destroyed all his farming
Hamilton said the original Saragosa probably had no more than 60
residents, but was home to the bank, an alfalfa association, cotton gin,
hotel, three grocery stores, a lumber yard, movie theater and a Wells
Fargo Express station as well as a depot for the Pecos Valley Southern
All are gone now, except for the railroad line, and even that is
all-but unused below the Trans-Pecos Materials plant, five miles north
of the Saragosa curve.
But while the 1930s twister was the beginning of the end of the
original Saragosa, thanks to help and donations from across the state
and nation, most of the two-thirds of Saragosa destroyed by the 1987
storm has been rebuilt, though it takes only a few glances to see the
scars still remain.
The memorial is in honor of the 10th anniversary of the tragic May 22,
1987 tornado that hit Saragosa, its victims and its survivors.
Officiating the special event will be Father Juan Narez, with special
music a part of the mass.
And he's often used the big air bags he keeps stored in an emergency
vehicle to lift those heavy trucks and set them back on their wheels.
Each time he slips a bag underneath a truck trailer and inflates it,
Brookshire recalls one night when the air bags saved lives. That was the
night a tornado ripped through the tiny community of Saragosa and
trapped a Head Start graduation crowd in the Catholic church's community
Thick concrete walls and a roof crushed numerous victims and held
others captive until rescuers could lift it. Bumper jacks were used, but
they kept falling and endangering victims. One of the early officers on
the scene realized more help was needed and radioed for Brookshire to
bring his air bags.
"Some deputy had the foresight to see the situation and call for the
air bags before I left town," Brookshire said. "By his acting as quick
as he did and getting me the word, it saved lives. If I'd gotten down
there and had to call back for air bags, it would have cost another
Brookshire and his crew made the 30 miles in 30 minutes, in spite of
rain, hail, debris on the road and heavy traffic.
The rescue truck was a refrigeration unit, built like a motor home with
a lot of compartments.
"We maintain it like an ambulance or fire truck," Brookshire said. "We
keep it fully fueled and everything in it, ready to go."
Two 30-inch starter bags can be inserted in a crack 1½ inches high,
then inflated to lift a heavy object high enough to remove a body,
Brookshire said. Four larger bags can upright an overturned truck or bus.
Joey Herrera, whose graduation speech was interrupted by the tornado,
was one that Brookshire helped rescue.
"He was probably hurt the least, but we couldn't take a chance of
dropping the concrete on him," Brookshire said. "They had a front-end
loader and several high-lift jacks. The air bags kept the concrete from
cracking and falling the middle."
Brookshire said that his big truck wrecker moved concrete, but "We had
to be real slow and not drag it off because we might have pulled off
someone's head. We were lucky somebody didn't get seriously injured,
there were so many people so excited," he said.
Brookshire credits the late Melton Rasberry, then Texas Highway Patrol
sergeant, with creating order out of chaos in the early hours of the
"The turning point was when Rasberry got on the scene," he said. "He
pointed people in the right direction."
Brookshire praised all law enforcement efforts during and after the
"There can't enough be said about the sheriff's office," he said a week
after the disaster. "Some county employees are furnishing their own fuel
to drive 60 miles a day round trip. They did a tremendous job."
Brookshire and his family stayed at the scene 24 hours, then hauled
some vehicles to people's houses free of charge.
"That night they volunteered off-duty hours, then we paid all the other
time, because they couldn't afford to miss any regular hours,"
He and his crew worked daily for more than a week, hauling materials to
Saragosa, setting up a dry box trailer with donated commodities,
servicing trucks on the site, hauling a fork lift and smashed cars.
Their willingness to pitch in and help where needed is just one example
of selflessness witnessed in the days and nights following the tornado.
Politics, financial problems and questions about the hospital's
continued existence all took a back seat on May 22, 1987, when a tornado
struck Saragosa, killing 30 people and injuring over 120 others.
The hospital became the main treatment facility, taking care of about
100 of the injured and responding to the emergency 25 miles to the south.
The sad but sobering event made Reeves County residents realize that
the hospital was necessary. Everyone received quality care and the need
for a hospital in a community the size of Pecos was proved.
Although the disaster took everyone's minds off the problems at the
hospital for a while, the trouble still existed. Problems soon
resurfaced and escalated, nearly forcing the 62 bed facility to close.
Financial operations at Reeves County Hospital were part of the
county's overall budget, though operation of the hospital was carried
out by a number of different groups, including the Seventh Day
Adventists. But by 1987, they had give up management of the facility,
and two other management groups were brought in that year - the third,
Hospital Corporation of America arriving just 10 days after the tornado
But even with HCA, one of the nation's largest hospital management
firms, overseeing things, by 1988 commissioners realized they could not
continue to operate the hospital effectively within the county's budget,
and called for a special referendum election. By doing this, they
allowed the voters to decide the fate of the hospital's ownership and
Voters faced a tough decision on the proposal to form a hospital
district, something which at that time was rare in Texas communities.
A political action committee that consisted mostly of hospital
employees was created to inform the public of their options. A vote for
the hospital district meant a tax increase. However, a vote against the
hospital district could have meant the eventual closing of the health
Both the committee and the media made a large impact on the community
by reminding them of the tremendous need for a hospital at the time of
the tornado. The public was also reminded of the critical effect that
having no local emergency service could have on the lives of their loved
The Reeves County Hospital District was formed in November 1989, a
little more than two years after the tornado tore through Saragosa. It
is currently in its eighth year of operation, and financial has shown
improvements over the past few years, helped by its association with the
Lubbock Methodist Hospital system.
Marvin and Helen Sanders, along with their sons Marty and Mike, were in
the wrong place at the wrong time that night, driving south on Highway
17 right into the tornado's path just before it passed through Saragosa.
"We were on our way to Lajitas and were going to stop in Fort Davis and
spend the night," said Helen Sanders, who is the aunt of then-Pecos High
School varsity basketball coach Allen Wootan. "It was my family of four,
with Marvin and our two sons, and two more couples."
"We hadn't listened to the weather on the radio, but we had gotten into
rain and hail even before we got there," she said, as they came past the
curve on Highway 17 and towards Saragosa.
"We were watching the clouds, and we saw one against the clouds
dropping down and dropping down, but it looked so far away towards the
mountains we didn't think anything of it."
The group was headed south in two cars when they reached the Toyah
Creek bridge just north of Saragosa. "The deputy sheriff pulled us over,
and told us there was a tornado coming," Marvin Sanders said. "We pulled
up to what looked like some kid of nightclub (Joe Gallego's bar), and we
didn't figure we'd have time to get out, so we took our chance inside
The four inside Sanders' 1978 Oldsmobile - himself, both sons and
family friend Ralph Buffington - all ducked down beneath the seats as
the twister approached. "The tornado hit us from behind," he said. "It
ripped all the lining out of the car, and a piece of sheet iron came
through the window and lodged in the dashboard over our heads.
"There was a shed off on the end of the building that just disappeared.
I don't know where it went," Sanders added. "All you could hear was the
roar and just the stuff pounding the car."
He said the medal the crashed into the dashboard, "took a piece of skin
off Marty's hand, and a piece of what looked like floor hit Marty in the
head and cut a gash.
"Helen's arm was all beat up from where the rocks hit us," he added,
showing a jar of rocks they had kept from the tornado, which had smashed
into the cars.
Helen Sanders was in the second car, a Mercury Marquis, with Dorothy
Buffington and Shirley and Bill Parrish. "We felt the car come off the
ground three times. I didn't realize how strong it was until we got out
of the car," she said.
"It passed over us and picked us up, then the eye hit and dropped us,
then it passed over us again," said Marty Sanders, who ended up in
Midland Memorial Hospital as a result of the storm.
"Marty had a concussion from where the wood hit him, and we had to put
him in the hospital," Helen Sanders said, which was a problem in itself,
since both cars were heavily damaged, and far worse destruction had been
done just to the south, where 31 people were dead or dying.
"A deputy sheriff stopped and asked if anybody was hurt. We said our
son had a concussion, but he said `I'm talking critical,'" she said. "A
Spanish fellow and his wife from New Mexico stopped and took Marty and I
back to the hospital in Pecos."
"I thought those people there did a great job," Marvin Sanders said of
the Reeves County Hospital staff. "It looked like a war zone with all
the people injured and with blood on them."
While Marty Sanders did end up in the hospital, he still recalled some
of the events after the storm passed.
He said most of the people where they stopped appeared to be all right,
but "you could hear people screaming off to the side about 100 yards
away. A girl came up with nails stuck in her foot. She was looking for
her parents. She must have been about 14-15 years old."
The family eventually had to use a 2-by-4 to pry open the trunk of
their car to get their clean clothes out, after the force of the wind
pushed in the lock of the vehicle. Eventually, they were able to drive
the car back up to Pecos, though Marty said, "there was air and grass
between the tire and the rim. When we got it up here the tire should
have bee flat, and it wouldn't hold air. They said they were no way you
should have been able to drive the car like that."
While their friends did return later to Saragosa to take pictures of
the devastation, Helen Sanders said they have never been back since that
night in 1987.
"I saw a tornado when I was a little child in school," she said. "I
remember running home from school then. But I never want to see another
"A lot of people go through life and don't know what real happiness
is," he said. "I knew it then; I had a beautiful wife and family. If I
never have another family, I look back on that happiness when I am down.
It helps me through my hard times."
Elsa, his beautiful 25-year-old wife, and 1-year-old Jonathan Ross,
died beside Herrera in the Catholic church hall in Saragosa when a
tornado demolished most of the town May 22, 1987.
As secretary of the Pecos-Barstow-Toyah ISD board of trustees and a
director for the Community Council of Reeves County, Herrera was
speaking at the Head Start graduation in the hall when word came that a
tornado was headed for Saragosa.
"I was about halfway through my speech when the Santos boy from
Balmorhea ran in and grabbed children off the stage, yelling that a
tornado had been spotted in Balmorhea," Herrera told this reporter two
"Pat Brijalba and I went out to the porch on the south side of the
hall, and I put my arm around him and said, `We'll be O.K.,'" Herrera
said. "But it just kept coming. It was so big and gray, like the one in
Herrera was a student at Midwestern University in Wichita Falls when a
tornado ripped through that North Texas city, devastating everything in
its path. A friend gave Herrera a color photo of that April 10, 1979,
tornado, which shows an angry black cloud filling the sky over a
residential area, and a mile-wide funnel kicking up dirt and debris on
the ground. It was a storm that would kill 42 people and injured 1700
Watching the gray funnel approach Saragosa, Herrera remembered that
earlier experience and knew his family was in trouble.
"We saw it coming, closer and closer," he said. "I grabbed table cloths
and threw them over Elsa and the baby to protect them. We just huddled
there, like we had been taught."
When the thick concrete walls crashed in, Herrera and his family were
crushed beneath it, while the tornado lingered overhead for two or three
Herrera said he was pinned in for "what seemed like three years, but
was probably 30 or 40 minutes. I yelled and yelled. My hand was pinned
by a board. They would lift with jacks and it would fall back and hurt
Reeves County Sheriff's Deputy Floyd Estrada was first on the scene,
and Herrera credits him with saving his life and many others. But it was
too late for Elsa and Jonathan.
"I knew they were dead," he said. "They were so cold and still."
Once rescuers extracted Herrera from the rubble, they wouldn't let him
stay and try to get his family out. He was taken by ambulance to Reeves
County Hospital, where he was treated for fractured ribs and shoulder,
sprained wrist, pulled ligaments and abrasions.
The bodies of his wife and baby were tagged and taken to Pecos Funeral
Home with other casualties, but the baby was mis-identified and Herrera
could not recognize his wife's swollen body. Hoping against hope that
they might still be alive, he checked with area hospitals, but none of
the injured fit their descriptions.
Finally, a friend found Jonathan in the funeral home in Fort Stockton,
where the body was sent for embalming. The toe tag had another baby's
"I recognized him right away," Herrera said. "He looked just like he
did when he left the house."
Jonathan would have been 1 year old on the Sunday following the
tragedy. Herrera had plans for a big birthday party on Saturday,
complete with a pony.
"That pony died last week," Herrera said in a recent interview, as
balloons from his own birthday celebration gently bobbed in the breeze
from a ceiling fan in his office.
"I am like one of those little balloon characters that bobs back up
when you knock it down," he said.
Born and raised in Pecos, Herrera said he likes it here and plans to
stay. He purchased an insurance agency months after the tornado and
continues to provide all types of insurance for his clients.
In the months following the tornado, Herrera was liaison for Gov. Bill
Clements. He helped tornado victims cut red tape to get the help they
He served on the school board until 1989, ending his term as president.
He was also president of the community council board on two occasions,
but has left politics to the younger generation.
"I have no plans every to get involved in politics again," he said.
"Let the younger people in town take care of that. They seem to be doing
a good job."
When his work day is over, Herrera often heads for a small ranch just
outside of town where he has eight horses, a few head of cattle and a
few lambs - including a new baby calf and lamb.
"I enjoy working with animals and building pens," he said.
He admits to visiting the graves of his family often and "talking" with
Elsa, who was his best friend, inspiration and "good luck charm."
"A lot of people try to feel sorry for me because of what's happened,
but there's a lot of people a lot worse off than I am," he said. "I am
just grateful for the good times and appreciate those."
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Copyright 1997 by Pecos Enterprise
Division of Buckner News Alliance, Inc.
324 S. Cedar St., Pecos, TX 79772
Phone 915-445-5475, FAX 915-445-4321
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