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Oklahoma Memories

Woodward Tornado, 1947

2010-04-12

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"A little boy died there. Of course the doctor said that my husband was already dead, so they loaded him in the back of a pickup."

That's the voice of Agnes Giddens. Agnes was working at the Oasis Steakhouse the night of April 9, 1947…the night the deadliest tornado in Oklahoma history devastated the city of Woodward.

From the Oklahoma History Center, this is Oklahoma Memories. I'm Michael Dean.

It was quiet night in Woodward, the night of April 9, 1947. Agnes Giddens was a waitress at the Oasis Steakhouse working the night shift. That was her preference. Her husband worked days; she worked nights. That way someone was always at home with her two sons. But that night, no one would have expected what would happen over the next couple of hours.

"It was kind of the beginning of spring. People wanted to be out and doing things and all, and I remember this cloud bank in the southwest about sundown and lightning and such and I thought 'Well, it's going to rain and maybe the weather will get settled and so on.' Then, of course, after dark why it began to build up and move toward town."

On April 7th, a pacific warm front crossed through Arizona and New Mexico, and by April 9th, the front arrived near Amarillo where it collided with a strong cold front. The wind speed in Amarillo was clocked at more than 100 miles per hour, and in short order, a half-dozen tornadoes formed and dropped from the sky. The first one with a base estimated at two miles wide struck Canadian, Texas. The biggest town in its path was Woodward.

There were no tornado warnings as we're accustomed to today. And on Wednesday April 9, 1947, it was the third day of a nationwide telephone strike. Only emergency operators were working the switchboards at the local phone offices.

Giddens was concerned that night. Usually her husband and two sons, ages 5 and 8, came by the Oasis where her husband would have a cup of coffee, and the boys would drink a soda.

"…and he didn't come over that evening for some reason, and I don't know why. He always came over but not that evening, and I wanted to call him and even tried to call him, but the operator said 'No, not unless it's an emergency,' and I said 'Well, it is an emergency. I want to get through. I want to find out why he didn't come over.' She wouldn't accept the call."

At 8:15pm the tornado completely leveled the town of Gage, 25 miles southwest of Woodward. Now Woodward was in the tornado's bulls-eye. People commented on how muggy it was that night, then the wind picked up, then it really started blowing, bending trees to the ground, then the rain followed the wind, then hail…then the tornado, until 1999, the only confirmed F-5 tornado to ever hit Oklahoma.

Giddens remembered what happened at the Oasis that night when the tornado hit.

"…and then the first thing I knew, why, tin started coming off of the Oasis and windows, you know, bulging and cracking and popping and so on. Then it wasn't long 'til dishes started coming off the shelves, and the whole building came apart. People were screaming."

Giddens left the Oasis as soon as the tornado passed. Her house was just two blocks away. She felt her way home through the pitch black of the night only to find her home gone. She knew the path of the storm was to the northeast…

"…and it all was headed toward the northeast, and so I reasoned, well they've got the northeast of where the house was. I found them a block away in a grater ditch, all three of them, and I would say my husband was probably already dead, all I could hear was the death gurgle in his throat, and then the little boy was unconscious, and my oldest one that lived through it, he was crying that he was hurt. 'Please help me, Mom.'"

The first reports that night were that 12 people were killed, but it was much worse than that. The first reports were that some houses and buildings had been demolished. It was much worse than that. The next morning, at daybreak, those who survived found themselves in the midst of a catastrophe. A two-mile-wide tornado had leveled 100 city blocks in Woodward, leaving 185 dead and 1,000 people injured.

The interview with Agnes Giddens was recorded in 1983. It's a part of the oral history collection at the Oklahoma History Center. The Oklahoma History Center is located on NE 23rd Street, just east of the state capitol in Oklahoma City.Oklahoma Memories is a production of the Oklahoma History Center, dedicated to collecting, preserving and sharing our state past. I'm Michael Dean.