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Authorities now believe 28 people died in twister

May 29, 1997

JARRELL, Texas (AP) _ Fears that a large number of people were missing, enough to nearly double the death toll in the twister that obliterated a neighborhood this week, have proven groundless, authorities said today.

Authorities plan to stop searching for bodies by noon today after concluding that 28 people died in the state’s worst tornado in a decade.

Department of Public Safety officials said today they have the names of 28 people missing and at least 27 bodies undergoing identification in Austin. However, many of the bodies were in poor shape because of the storm’s ferocity, so the additional name may be identified by body parts still being examined.

It had been feared that 23 people were still missing in Jarrell _ which, if added to the 27 bodies, would have brought the death toll to 50. But DPS spokeswoman Laureen Chernow said the town’s remaining 131 residents have been accounted for.

``They believe the names and bodies will match up as the bodies are identified,″ Ms. Chernow said.

Justice of the peace Jimmy Bitz slowly confirmed identities throughout the night after comparing pictures and other records with relatives of the deceased. As of this morning, four bodies had been identified: teen-age brothers John and Michael Ruiz; Ryan Fillmore, believed to be 5; and his 44-year-old grandmother, Emma Jean Mullins, were the only names confirmed as of late Wednesday.

Roughly 50 homes were demolished Tuesday afternoon when the twister moved through the Double Creek Estates subdivision in this town 40 miles north of Austin.

Gov. George W. Bush flew over the area Wednesday and declared it a disaster. Officials from several federal agencies were expected to arrive today to help residents try sorting out their lives.

``It’s a major mess,″ said Billy Sharp, a ham radio specialist from Georgetown who provided authorities immediate help at the scene. ``I’m sure they’ll be finding stuff that was scattered for a long, long time.″

Hundreds of rescue workers combed the area Wednesday trying to find people, dead or alive. They found neither.

The National Weather Service said the twister likely had a force of four on its scale of five. It was the state’s worst since May 22, 1987, when 30 people died and 162 were injured in the far West Texas town of Saragosa.

When the tornado alarm sounded, teacher Joan Igo left her classroom. Her husband, Larry, closed up his auto parts store. Daughter Audrey left school to join her twin brothers, John and Paul.

They all made it home ahead of the tornado, and it cost them their lives.

``They actually rushed home into danger,″ said the Rev. Max Johnson, pastor of the First Baptist Church.

``The house was totally demolished,″ Johnson said, recalling how the entire family would sing at his church. ``Nothing was left but the slab.″

Jarrell’s warning siren sounded 10 to 12 minutes before storm hit. It did little good.

``It was too large to outrun and too strong to have survived unless you got away from the path,″ said Al Dreumont, a National Weather Service forecaster.

Johnson had raced to his son’s job at a feed mill after the two were cut off while talking on the phone just before the tornado hit.

``It turned out he was all right, but the tornado had come within yards of him,″ he said. ``That’s when I saw the total devastation.″

Homes built on slabs, with no basement, are the norm here because of the area’s hard limestone bedrock.

``I don’t know what we’re going to do,″ said Ronnie Tonns, 30, who fled with his mother, Lynette, and dog Snoopy, about 10 minutes before the twister hit. ``Everything is just gone.″

The National Weather Service said the twister likely had a force of four on a scale of five. It was the state’s worst since May 22, 1987, when 30 people died and 162 were injured in the far West Texas town of Saragosa.

The Jarrell survivors coped by coming together, many of them using the shelter run by the American Red Cross. About 100 teen-agers sat in a circle at the football field for a prayer meeting.

Earlier, truckload after truckload of supplies were dropped off, with volunteers and Boy Scouts distributing them. Insurance companies and state agencies worked to assist victims.

``It’s a major mess,″ said Billy Sharp, a ham radio operator. ``I’m sure they’ll be finding stuff that was scattered for a long, long time.″