The Dallas Morning News Articles
"Trust the tale, not the teller." D. H. Lawrence
On April 1 and 2, 2007 the Dallas Morning News published an admirable pair of articles to note the fiftieth anniversary of the tornado. The DMN's record on tornado anniversary articles, however, is not spotless. Since their flawed fortieth anniversary piece is as much a part of the historical record as are the excellent fiftieth ones, I believe that the need for correction will be ongoing. What follows, then, is the story behind the 1997 and 2007 stories.
On April 2, 1997 an article by reporter Ellen Sweets noting the fortieth anniversary of the 1957 Dallas tornado appeared in the Dallas Morning News on the front page of the second section. Having watched the funnel gyrate around in the sky from just a few blocks away, and having been impressed as perhaps only a nine-year-old can be by such an amazing sight, I was fascinated by the article. It contained more information by far than I had seen in any one place before. I clipped it and filed it away.
Every once in a while I would take it out and re-read it, and after a couple of years I decided to use it as the starting point for a project that had been in the back of my mind for a long time: reconstructing the tornado's path of death and destruction across the southern and western parts of the city (although a reasonably accurate map of the path accompanied the article, it was not in any way detailed). My father had been a loan officer at the Republic National Bank (from whose impressive building he got a bird's eye view of the funnel), and so I had an embarrassment of old Dallas street maps, handed out every year by the bank, available to me for marking locations, making notes, and drawing triangulation lines.
I plotted street addresses and intersections noted or suggested in the article along with some locations dredged up from my own recollections of where the tornado had been and how it had moved. By 2002 I had added a little bit more from family members' memories, from the stories of a couple of acquaintances who had witnessed the storm, and from one or two other sources including a growing collection of photographs harvested from the Internet in anticipation of the eventual creation of some sort of Web site.
One thing implied by the 1997 DMN article that jumped out at me was the way the tornado, at the point along Polk when it reached Clarendon Dr, apparently had made a sharp, dramatic side excursion of close to a dozen blocks due west. Here, the article claimed, it traveled north between Superior Dr and Chalmers Dr before demolishing several homes at the intersection of Catherine St and Pierce St. One person still living on Pierce in 1997, who was interviewed and photographed for the article, was quoted as saying that three children from one family lost their lives somewhere near this location. Another interviewee said that a teenage boy was killed in the area. Nearby Searcy St. supposedly was named in his memory. The article went on further to imply that the tornado at some point traveled back due east to resume its previous northward track along Polk.
I actually had memories of the tornado's movement that were not inconsistent with this scenario. Also, the fact that three children from a single family had perished was well known. On one occasion I made a special trip to inspect the Catherine and Pierce intersection for myself, and discovered small commercial buildings -- appearing to date from approximately the 1950s -- squatting incongruously on the corners among the much older homes.
On the other hand, a path like this would have represented bizarre behavior for any tornado, and the death toll would probably have had to have been higher than ten if the information were correct (the article curiously mentions eleven separate fatalities while specifying ten as the official tally). There was no record at all that I could find of any damage occurring between the Polk and the putative Superior-Chalmers paths. Also, I had seen reports (including, again rather curiously, one in the 1997 article itself) placing the three-children-from-one-family tragedy elsewhere than in Oak Cliff.
A slowly developing sense of doubt prompted me to ask the acquaintances mentioned earlier -- people who had been in a position to know -- if they had seen, or had heard reports of, the tornado making any excursion in Oak Cliff west of Hampton Rd. Memories were, of course, a little fuzzy, but I came away with the impression that this likely had not happened.
By this time -- the end of 2002 -- I had begun work on the present Web site, its primary raison d'etre being to convey to people the insufficiently appreciated (I felt at the time) historical significance of the storm to tornado meteorology (the site originally was for-free-hosted by geocities.com). Since I now was seriously into the detailed history of the storm, I would be needing to make a trip (more than one as it turned out) to the central branch of the Dallas Public Library where I could consult 1957 newspaper reports.
It was June 21 of 2004 before I got down to the library. After going through the April 3, 1957 Dallas Times Herald story on the previous day's disaster (one of the two best sources of information that I have seen) and failing to find anything anywhere (including on a map of the path) suggesting that the tornado had traveled west of Hampton, I threaded up the microfiche containing the DMN's issue of the same date.
The answer to my by now strong suspicions concerning the accuracy of the 1997 DMN article was on p.1 of the "Early City Edition." A sidebar to the main tornado story briefly recapped a July 30, 1933 tornado, the last one Dallas had seen prior to 1957, that struck at about 3:00 p.m. on a Sunday in the Superior-Chalmers area, west of the 1957 storm's path. On a subsequent trip to the library I examined newspaper reports of the 1933 tornado. Altogether I learned that it had lasted about two minutes, claimed three lives, and avoided severely damaging peach orchards in west Dallas. There was indeed a 22-year-old man named Searcy killed in this earlier, storm. There was, however, no report of three children from a single family having died.
I concluded that some of the people interviewed for the 1997 article must have confounded their memories of -- or stories they had been told about -- the 1933 storm with those of the 1957 one, the problem being aggravated by Ms. Sweets failing to do adequate research. In early 2007, however, my Web site, obscure as it was, was noticed by someone who had recognized the mistakes in the DMN's 1997 article at the time the article was published. This gentleman emailed me to say that in 1997 he had gone to the trouble of contacting a couple of the people interviewed for the article who assured him that they had made it clear to Ms. Sweets that they were recounting events of two tornadoes occurring twenty-four years apart, and that they were not happy about how the article had turned out. My rash assumption about their bad memories was incorrect.
My correspondent also had contacted Ms. Sweets directly, but claimed to have received what charitably may be described as a less than polite response. Reading one piece in particular written by Ms. Sweets in early 2007, long after she left the DMN, I can imagine that this was true. It is very apparent that she didn't think much of the city of Dallas during her short stay here. It is, of course, hard to say for sure whether this had anything to do with her making such a mess out of the tornado story, but I suspect that it did (although it should not be forgotten that all newspaper articles have editors as well as writers). But there is yin and yang to all things. As bad as Ms. Sweets's journalism was, it's true that her article first inspired me to work seriously on the history of the storm.
In any event, my main concern had already shifted to the fiftieth anniversary article which I assumed the DMN would be doing in 2007. The DMN presently is the monopoly large daily in Dallas (having bought out the Times Herald many years ago) and would necessarily be producing the sole significant newspaper accounting. It seemed quite likely to me that they were unaware of the errors in their 1997 article and probably would produce another sloppy story by using it as a major source.
There was support for this concern (or bit of paranoia, if you wish). Some of the errors were repeated on a page on the DMN's Web site under the byline of Kimberly Durnan. I emailed Ms. Durnan in January of 2007 with details of the problem, but received only a "thanks for the email" reply. No hint of a correction to the Web piece was forthcoming (and by one week after the anniversary of the storm in 2007 it had climbed to the top of Google's food chain for "1957 Dallas Tornado" searches; don't trust everything you read on the Internet). As far as I was concerned, this did not bode well for any 2007 article that might be published. (The page was taken down sometime after March of 2010).
And so on February 17, 2007 I emailed DMN columnist Steve Blow, who a couple of years earlier had done a column in which I had figured (although it had nothing at all to do with the tornado), and laid out my complaints and concerns. I admitted that the 1997 story was water under the bridge and could not be corrected, but that I hoped any upcoming fiftieth anniversary piece would turn out more accurate. Mr. Blow subsequently replied saying that he trusted that the DMN would do a much better job this time round, and that I would be hearing from someone.
On March 13, 2007 I received an email from David Flick, who was to be one of the writers (along with Michael E. Young) for the fiftieth anniversary article (or articles as it turned out). His message, including the DMN's pledge to improve significantly on their 1997 effort, was encouraging. In a follow-up phone conversation I referred Mr. Flick to my Web site (which by that time contained most of its current content, minus, of course, the present page) for details on the storm. I also gave him the email address and phone number of National Weather Service meteorologist Alan Moller, whom I had heard earlier in March at a storm chaser's conference give a talk on the meteorology of the tornado (later I was pleased to see Mr. Moller featured prominently in the DMN's April 2, 2007 article). Eventually I was able to provide Mr. Flick with one other piece of information.
Something I have learned after decorating the planet for a few decades is that the universe we inhabit can sometimes be a weird place. A couple of years prior to the fitieth anniversary, a co-worker -- a severe weather enthusiast (yes, there are such people, many of them) who had seen my Web site -- related a tale told to him by a relative. Essentially what had happened was that in the course of his work in 2000 the relative had chanced to meet a woman who revealed to him that she had lost two children to the 1957 tornado. This was intriguing, as there was nothing in the official record regarding two children from one family having died (although the only significant Web based accounting of the tornado at the time other than my site -- a story by KDFW Fox 4 TV news producer Chip Mahaney on stromtrack.org -- did imply precisely this). There were unsubstantiated reports of lives lost as the tornado passed along Vilbig St which, if true, could be used to account for the woman's story. But if these reports were indeed true (an unlikely situation), the death toll would have to have been significantly higher than the official ten.
On the other hand, what if something had gone missing somewhere as the story was remembered and retold, and the woman was the mother of the three children (actually lost during the tornado's devastation of Arlington Park), an individual who, to the best of my knowledge, had never made any public statement concerning her personal disaster? I put this thought aside at the time since I am not a journalist and my interest was solely in getting documented facts about the storm assembled on the Web site as accurately as possible.
A week or so after our initial phone conversation, when Mr. Flick called again asking if I had any leads to eyewitnesses in Arlington Park, I told him I did not. But as I discussed this with my co-worker afterwards we began to wonder once again about his relative's experience. He decided to double-check with his relative. To make a rather long story short, the relative confirmed -- I never knew exactly how -- that three, not two, of the woman's children had been killed. He produced the full name and current address of the woman. She was indeed the mother of the three from Arlington Park.
I was at first reluctant to provide this to Mr. Flick. Assurances that the DMN would be considerate of the woman's feelings, however, convinced me to give him the information. After all, I rationalized, this might be her last opportunity to see any real public recognition of her children, lost so long ago in one of the area's most significant natural disasters. I was relieved to find that she apparently was not completely averse to being contacted when her interview appeared as the centerpiece of the DMN's April 1, 2007 article. What are the odds that, steadily and carefully pursuing the history of this event as I had been, it would be by the merest accident that I would stumble across its most tragic surviving victim after the passage of fifty years?
Mr. Flick suggested that the DMN likely would be able to find a spot for the URL of my Web site amidst the material accompanying its articles, and indeed a link was placed on the paper's Web site next to its online content. This had the effect of overnight forcing the site on Google's attention, a feat that by itself it had not previously been able to accomplish (if anyone ever starts haranguing you about "Net neutrality" you can safely tune them out; there is no such thing as Net neutrality, nor will there ever be). I anticipate that, as a result of my having provided them with a heads-up on their fortieth anniversary problems plus a decent amount of their fiftieth anniversary information, the DMN will not raise much of a fuss at my displaying one or two of their excellent photographs (such as the one at the top of this page) on the site.
In the end, I believe, the Dallas Morning News is to be commended for its hard work and dedication to accuracy in putting together its fiftieth anniversary articles, and for its decision to place them prominently in the paper on two consecutive days. They have gone a long way toward making up for the unfortunate mistakes of 1997.
Last updated 7 August, 2018