30 Years After…
Series of disasters in 1987 remembered
It was West Memphis’ worst disaster, it was West Memphis’ finest hour. That is how State Senator, then mayor, Keith Ingram remembered the devastating 200 mph tornado thirty years on. Ingram was a 31 year old rookie mayor in his eleventh month in office when the tornado swept though town. This week, he was still impressed with the community response to the disaster.
“People just wanted to help,” said Ingram. “You know it was a tough time but the community did a great job together.”
He said it was eerily hot, humid, and still that night and then the call came out of the dark a little before 9:30 p.m.
“It was pretty apparent pretty quick that there was a lot of damage,” said Ingram. “It did $40 million damage.”
The tornado struck quickly and cut a wide swath.
“”It was like a B-52 had crash landed,” said Ingram.
“I’ll never forget seeing a 4-wheeler up in a tree around 27th and Sula Lane.”
But the response was just as quick. The mayors from Memphis and Jonesboro were quick on the scene and offered help.
“We had 50 police officers from Memphis helping on our streets,” said Ingram.
The city quickly filled up with out of town gawkers taking tours all through the night. The streets were jammed so bad emergency vehicles had trouble navigating the streets. There were amazingly no tornado related fires. But search and rescue efforts were underway and six fatalities were reported before everyone was accounted for. Looters were a concern and so with the help from Memphis police the city set a perimeter around the damaged areas.
Identification was required to go in and out for residents and the contractors that came along later doing repair work.
“I was so proud of our first responders,” said Ingram.
“Everybody pulled together, some worked 36 hours in a row. We set up the disaster enter at the Eugene Woods Civic Center.”
Service agency showed their mettle and community agency was born out of the tornado disaster.
One great memory I have is what a great service agency the Salvation Army is,” said Ingram. I’m still a fan today. Unlike the American Red Cross, they came in and just asked what they could do to help.” The response brought the city together around the dinner table too.
“We had a big community luncheon, Tyson provided the chicken,” said Ingram.
“It was very spiritual; very, very wonderful.”
The tornado spawned giving that continues to impact the city today.
“That’s how the Good Neighbor Love Center got started,” said Ingram.
“Overall we raised $300,000 to help those displaced from their homes,” said Ingram. “People lost all the food in their refrigerator and we helped replace it. Southland donated $100,000. That’s how charity days got started.”
West Memphis City Councilwoman recalled the scene at Crittenden Memorial Hospital in the aftermath.
“I was in the emergency room and there were injuries,” said Taylor. “They said what they needed help with opening up a shelter.
So I went over to the civic center and we opened it as a triage and shelter place.”
West Memphis Fire Chief Wayne Gately remembered the tornado. Thirty years ago, he was on duty as a driver at Fire Station No. 1 when the call came.
“What a memory,” said Gately. “We had 80 businesses damaged, some totally wiped out. There were 300 to 400 homes wiped out, and several hundred apartments damaged. It was a wild night. It hit at 9:30.
The dog track was in season and there was probably 9,000 people at Southland that night. It missed the track by 300 yards, but wiped out the truck stops on both sides of the Interstates.”
It was Gately who discovered the first storm-related fatality, one of six from the deadly tornado, on 14th Street.
“It was a night like I don’t ever want to spend again,” said Gately.
By John Rech