CLEBURNE, Texas - Living in “Tornado Alley,” 77-year-old Bill Jones has heard the blare of civil defense warning sirens more times than he can count. But on Wednesday night it was the mighty oak trees in his yard that finally persuaded him to take cover.
“They were swirling every which way,” Jones said of the 40-year-old trees. “We knew it was pretty serious the way the wind was blowing.”
Jones, his wife, Nadine, and their daughter and son-in-law hurried into an interior hallway, slamming a door shut in the nick of time.
“We saw the chimney come crashing down through the ceiling,” Jones said.
For a harrowing 20 minutes, they hunkered down in the 3-by-5-foot space where family photos on the wall kept watch over them.
“My wife was praying pretty loud,” Jones said. “We were all scared.”
Outside the hallway, their home of 41 years was being butchered by what many residents and storm spotters described as a milewide twister.
“When I first saw it, my heart almost stopped,” storm chaser Mike Casey told Yahoo News.
At least 10 tornadoes touched down across North Texas on Wednesday evening. In Cleburne, where scores of homes were damaged but no lives lost, forecasters said early reports had the tornado packing winds of 136 to 165 mph.
Casey and a fellow storm chaser were behind a thunderstorm that had already spawned a deadly twister in nearby Granbury when a flash of lightning revealed the dark beast in front of them.
“We were freaking out a little bit,” he said.
So were Jones’ grandsons, who live two miles away and feared the twister was headed for Jones' home.
“We tried calling him and couldn’t get him on the phone,” said Ty Jones, 19. “We could see the actual funnel. It was huge.”
Bill Jones, a retired loan officer, didn’t need to see it to know what was happening.
“The boards were rattling,” he said. “You could hear everything crackling and falling apart.”
He and his family emerged from the hallway unscathed, but they found the roof gone and nearly every window in the red-brick home blown away. The trees that had warned him of the tragedy to come were toppled like toothpicks.
Jones is insured, but he doubts the house in which he and Nadine raised two children can be saved.
“We’ve done a lot of living here,” he said, at times fighting back tears. “It’s the worst thing that’s ever happened to me.”
Many of their possessions and family heirlooms now litter the house. Wading through his den, Jones picks up a soggy book cover and then puts it back down.
“I don’t even know where to start,” he said.
But his family did. With the help of friends, his grandsons spent Thursday morning hauling away the chimney bricks which came close to claiming their grandfather’s life.