40 years ago this week, I survived the tornado mentioned in this story. My great uncle, for which I was named, did not survive. He is mentioned in the story recently published in the Mustang Times. He was living in my childhood home. The house was wiped off its foundation.
UNION CITY REFLECTS ON HISTORIC TORNADO
By Jon Watje
On May 24, 1973, Rebecca Garcia was at her home, finishing up school work from her fourth grade class she taught at Union City schools. It had been clear and sunny earlier that day but it quickly changed outside.
“I remember it getting so dark outside,” Garcia said, who was living a few miles west of Union City at the time. “The clouds started turning into what look like huge mushrooms. I had a feeling something was going to happen.”
Moments later, Garcia’s son ran into the house.
“He said, ‘Mom, I think we are too late to get to the shelter,’” she said. “I then got us in the car and I drove as fast as I could into town.”
Garcia drove towards the school gymnasium, which was used as a public storm shelter. When they got there, they found many others that had made their way into the gym’s locker rooms, located beneath the bleachers.
“There were a lot of people there,” she said. “The room was crammed-full of people. I remember there being women and children in there and many of the men watching outside.”
Steve Marlett was 14 years-old and was working scraping paint on his parents’ house a half mile east of the U.S. Highway 81 and State Highway 152 intersection before the storm kicked in. His mother was at work and his dad was in El Reno and when the storm approached, he jumped on his bicycle along with his friend, Dean Armstrong, to make their way towards the shelter at the school.
“We were trying to make it to the school, but just as we got across the railroad tracks, someone hollered at us to get in his cellar,” Marlett said.
John Michalicka, who was 13 at the time, was watching the tornado approach Union City from his home a mile east of town on S.H. 152.
“My mother and I were watching it and when it came into town we got in our cellar,” Michalicka said. “When it was over, my dad came home from work and we tried to go into town to check on my grandparents. The police had blocked off the road, but we were able to get through and found out that they were alright.”
Michalicka’s wife, Sandi, was eight years-old at the time and was driving back into town from El Reno on U.S. Highway 81 with her dad. Her grandmother, Agatha Lagaly, lived in a home across the street from the Catholic church, right in the tornado’s path.
“She got in her cellar and it totally wiped her home away,” Sandi said. “However, there was a cedar chest in the middle of the home and it had only moved a few feet and was still standing. My grandmother still has that chest today.”
Back at the gymnasium, Garcia and the rest of those taking cover held tight as a tornado stormed past just north of them.
“You could hear it and smell it,” Garcia said. “When it hit, the room went dark. One thing I remember is being amazed at how quiet and calm the children were during the whole time. You could hear the roar of the tornado as it came by.”
Joe Bosler and his dad were in El Reno when they heard that a tornado was headed towards Union City.
“We got in our pickup and started driving south towards Union,” said Bosler, who was 13 at the time. “We went through a big hail storm and when we got out of it I remember seeing something and asking my dad, ‘What’s that?’ He said, ‘That’s a tornado.’ I remember the color of it, being almost pure white.”
Bosler and his dad stayed behind the tornado as it went through town and then headed southeast towards their farm.
“It looked like a bomb had gone off in Union City,” he said. “We followed it towards our farm and it wiped our farm and our house away. I was so scared and I remember it like it was yesterday.”
When it was over, those who rode out the storm surveyed the damage.
“It made an impression on me seeing all the houses that I knew that had serious to major damage,” Marlett said. “My dad was trying to make his way back to our house when he heard somebody crying out weakly for help. It was Mr. Sanders who lived next to the old Menz gas station.
Sanders, a World War I veteran, was known as “Corp” by those in town. He would later pass away from injuries he sustained from the storm. He was one of two casualties from the tornado that day.
Vicky McGuire-Lewis had just turned 15 a week before the tornado hit town.
“I remember walking the short distance from our house to town and being shocked at seeing all the destruction,” Lewis said. “There was a car turned upside down at the gas station, the grain elevator was completely gone and a straw stuck in a tree. The trailers where my cousins and friends lived was completely gone, nothing left but empty spaces where the trailers once sat.”
Tonia Strain and her mother, Sue, also took shelter at the school.
“After we got the clear sign we went to our trailer and it was fine, but the trailer left of us was laying over and so was the one on the right,” Strain said. “It really tore up the trailer park, but our family survived and that is all that mattered.”
The tornado that struck Union City on May 24, 1973 was not only significant to those who experienced it but also for researchers as it was their first opportunity to see the entire life cycle of a tornado. The study of the twister has helped improve weather warning systems. (Photo by the National Severe Storms Laboratory)