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27 dead, 23 missing after Texas tornado hits small Texas town

May 29, 1997

JARRELL, Texas (AP) _ Rescue workers slogged through muddy fields in a search for 23 people missing on Wednesday, a day after a twister flattened the town and killed at least 27.

As many as 150 rescuers searched the half-mile-wide, 5-mile-long stretch that was home to about 50 families before the tornado ripped through Tuesday afternoon, shaving the terrain to bare ground and blowing to bits everything it touched.

``I don’t know how much more simple I can make it,″ said high school principal John Johnson. ``There’s simply nothing there.″

The state insurance commissioner estimated damage at up to $20 million, and Gov. George W. Bush asked Washington for help rebuilding this bedroom community of 1,000 people, 40 miles north of Austin.

``It’s hard to believe you’re looking at a patch of earth where the life was literally sucked out of it,″ Bush said.

About half a dozen twisters hit the area Tuesday afternoon, and Jarrell’s warning siren sounded 10 to 12 minutes before the funnel cloud ripped through at about 3:30 p.m. But the alarm 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.

The twister swirled at more than 200 mph and was on the ground for 25 to 30 minutes, he said.

One victim died at a hospital. As of midday Wednesday, 26 others had been pulled dead from the rubble. Identifying the bodies won’t be easy. Some victims were dismembered, and photographs and dental records will be needed.

Police late Tuesday had given a higher death toll in Jarrell, but another count of body parts caused them to adjust the figure Wednesday.

It was still the deadliest tornado in the area since May 17, 1989, when one person died and 28 were injured, and the worst in Texas since May 22, 1987, when 30 died and 162 were injured in the far West Texas town of Saragosa.

Tuesday’s tornadoes also claimed one victim in Austin, where a twister destroyed two homes.

In Jarrell’s Double Creek Estate subdivision, roads were stripped of asphalt. Houses built on concrete slab foundations _ the norm, given the area’s hard limestone bedrock _ were torn from the ground and their contents flung miles away.

Dennis Jaroszewski, a burly Williamson County constable, arrived at the subdivision minutes after the tornado had passed. He got there in time to see a huge machine lift a concrete wall, exposing the bodies of a woman and her young daughter, the child wrapped in her mother’s protective arms.

``That’s when most of us lost it,″ Jaroszewski said, tears in his eyes.

Three miles northeast of Double Creek Estates, the heart of town was spared.

There, a school being used as a shelter and the First Baptist Church were the two hubs of activity, with displaced families loading up supplies at the school and friends and relatives awaiting news at the church. ``Safe lists″ with names of survivors were circulated throughout town.

Volunteers dropped off and sorted donations of clothes and food at the shelter. Boy Scouts unloaded truckloads of supplies given by businesses, and a mobile blood center took donations in the parking lot.

Insurance companies and state agencies set up booths to help victims with paperwork. Some were given checks of up to $5,000 for immediate housing.

Update hourly