By DANIEL WALKER
Vernon Daily Record Editor
Tuesday, April 10, 1979 seemed like a perfect spring day – right up until a tornado appeared seemingly out of nowhere, cutting a path through Wilbarger County and Vernon that left 11 dead, dozens injured and millions of dollars of property destroyed.
“It was just a regular old day. It didn’t seem like any storms were in the area. They didn’t even blow the storm sirens till it was at the highway department,” remembered Jessie Appleby.
A lucky ‘break’
Appleby was working at Cardinal Equipment in east Vernon. He and his coworkers were finishing up a break at the Canton Café around 3:30 p.m.
“We always took our break from 3 to 3:30 and went over to the Canton. When it was over, I went to the bathroom. If I hadn’t had to go to the bathroom their might of been a lot of people dead,” Appleby said.
“The west overhead door was open and it was bright daylight. I wasn’t in there two minutes and when I came out it was black. I looked out and there was a black wall cloud.
“Oh my gosh, there’s a tornado. I immediately ran to the back of the shop and hollered ‘There’s fixing to be a tornado.’ I said, ‘Everybody get to the bar ditch.’ No one gave me any flak or thought I was kidding we just ran.
“Just at that time a guy pulling into Vernon came running up, he said ‘I’ve got to use your phone.’ I said, ‘You don’t have time.’ And kept running. He ran inside. That’s where they found him, right where the phone used to be. The building was completely gone.”
“I was in the middle of the pack and things were flying everywhere when we ran outside. My glasses just lifted off my face (I never found them). The truck driver — Tony Robinson was the last one out. The wind picked him up at the doorway and threw him. He hit face first into the guardrail. It tore him up real bad.
Some of those employees with him were Nathan Christian and secretary Charlene Galloher. He said four people died near where he was at, but none of the employees. He said combines at the business were rolled up into little balls, one was split in half. Wheat straws were driven through cast iron wheels.
He said there had been a Coke box machine with 10 cases of bottled coke. When the storm passed the Coke box was gone but the cases were still there. Except each bottle was half filled with mud, while the caps were still on them.
“There are so many things you can’t believe could happen,” he said.
Appleby and the employees ran for cover as the tornado destroyed the buildings behind them.
“We dove over the guardrail and rolled down the hill into the bar ditch and dug into the grass to hold on.
“It sucked me up.
“Time looked like it stood still – everything was moving in slow motion. I guess I was only conscious for about 20 or 30 seconds but it seemed like a long time though.
“While up there it was clear as it could be. I saw a cow, a pig and a swing seat just rotating around with me. Then something hit me in the back of the head and I blacked out.
“It dropped me near Donna Goodrum’s back lot is now. I lay there unconscious till I felt something falling on my face. It felt like snow cone ice hitting me in the face.
“I heard a sound like a cannon go off. I looked over and the 369,000-volt high line wire was down and laying next to me.” (Appleby gestures that it was about three feet away.)
“’Oh God,’ I thought, ‘I’m about to be fried.’ Three times it popped then it tripped a breaker. The good Lord was with me.
“I saw this truck driving right towards me and I thought it was going to run over me. It slid right up to me and stopped. A farmer, LV Hrncirik jumped out. He said, ‘Jessie what are you doing laying on the ground.’ I said, ‘I can’t tell you but I know I can’t move. My right leg is broke for sure.
“He carried me in the back of his pickup to the hospital. About 30 o4 40 minutes later they loaded us two at a time into ambulances heading for Wichita Falls. I heard the driver say it looked like the storm was running along beside us. About the time we got there was when a tornado was about to hit Wichita. I said, ‘Hurry up and get me inside. I done been through this once.’
“I looked like I had been run over by a truck – black and blue all over but I lucked out – 31 days later I got back on my feet again. Walking with canes. It took forever to get the wood fragments and glass out of my body. It was an ordeal.”
Appleby says that in recent years he’s had to have two back surgeries, two neck surgeries, lost his equilibrium and has arthritis really bad. “I can’t say for sure but I’d guess it has something to do with my health problems,” he said.
The psychological scars lingered too. “It doesn’t bother me anymore, no nightmares. It did for a few years. I thank God everyday he brought me through it, it changed my life a lot,” he said.
Appleby gives severe weather a wide berth these days. “It’s something you don’t ever forget. I don’t want to go through it again. I’m not going to give it a second chance. When there is a chance for bad weather, I keep an eye on the sky and I give it plenty of room. I don’t take anything for granted.”
He offers the same advice for those who don’t take storm warnings seriously: “If you see a cloud coming, don’t let it catch you. Don’t take the weather for granted, that it will be okay.”
By DANIEL WALKER