It has been nearly 40 years, but L.W. Utley will always remember May 11, 1970, as the day his motel disappeared.
Utley and his wife, Marda, operated the Western Ways Motel, which was made up of 36 units and a restaurant and was nestled just inside Loop 289 and the Amarillo Highway (U.S. 87).
“We were about half full that night,” Utley recalled. “We had 17 rooms rented. My father lived there, and once it was all over we found him about 50 feet from where his room was. He’d suffered a lacerated arm and was kind of moaning to himself, but that was the only injury we had.”
Which was nothing short of a miracle.
On that spring night, the Western Ways was in the way of a powerful tornado that ripped through downtown Lubbock and forever altered the city’s face, foundation and future. The storm killed 26 people, injured 1,500 and caused more than $150 million in damage.
“It was storming, and the wind was blowing,” Utley said. “Then it started hailing. That was about the time my wife and five or six other people went into one of the bathrooms.”
|Debris fills the swimming pool of the Western Ways motel after the tornado.
A few moments later, Utley took cover beneath a mattress in the bathroom.
“I could hear the building coming apart while I had my head under there,” he recalled. “I looked out once just about the time the ceiling started coming apart, and I put my head back under the mattress.”
Remarkably, the Utley family, motel employees and guests escaped harm. The structure was not so lucky.
“I had a couple of kids who played baseball for me whose family operated that hotel,” said Bill Dean, executive vice president of the Texas Tech Alumni Association.
“I got on the Loop and drove around to where the exit was and nearly missed the exit because I didn’t recognize it.
“Everything was gone. The motel was no higher than this desk where I’m sitting. It had been leveled. They said it was the most devastating thing they’d ever seen.”
Marda Utley said, ultimately, eight people took shelter in that bathroom with three or four finding refuge in the bathtub.
“We had sold our home and moved our furniture into a room there,” Marda said. “Among the furniture, we had a piano, a lamp and a stool. After the tornado came through, the piano was gone. We found the strings, and the lamp and stool were still there.”
According to accounts from the A-J archives, the tornado supposedly first touched down near Fourth Street and University Avenue about 9:30 p.m.. The worst destruction began around 10th Street and Avenue Q. From there, the twister traveled northeast, causing extensive damage in the Guadalupe neighborhood and then north through the Lubbock Country Club addition.
After seeing the demolished hotel, Dean knew the city had experienced a tragedy unlike anything else in its history.
“Only then did I realize the impact of what had happened,” he said. “People I knew who had served in World War II compared it to the bombed-out cities where everything was just demolished.”
The Utleys, lifelong Lubbock residents, said the fact that no one at the motel died was a miracle.
“We took my dad to the hospital,” Utley said. “After that, a friend of mine made his way out where we were to check on us. We had a big desk in the front office there that was turned over, but the cash drawer was still there, and all the money was still in it.”
Soon after, Lubbock firefighters arrived on the scene to help with recovery efforts.
“We had a guest who was in the candy business staying with us that night,” Utley recalled. “When the fire department got there, they asked us if everyone had been accounted for. He was the one guest missing, so we went and looked around.
“I was stepping around and through all the debris when I heard a voice say, ‘Get your foot off of my head.’ He was pretty dazed and said we’d had a tornado. I told him we had — about an hour ago. He thought it had just happened.”
The motel was merely one example of the powerful tornado’s impact. President Richard Nixon declared Lubbock a federal disaster area two days later. The terror occurred in the dark of night; when daylight broke the next day, residents could not believe the grim scene.
According to A-J accounts, the toll included 600 destroyed or damaged commercial structures, including 20 major private and city-county facilities, almost 1,000 destroyed or damaged family housing units and 9,000 other housing units damaged.
“It was difficult to get the full impact until you got into it and saw just how mangled everything was,” Dean said.
Despite the carnage, the spirit of resiliency that has been a consistent hallmark of South Plains residents was about to take center stage.
“We had progressive leadership in the city at that time,” Dean said. “They pulled together and made a plus out of it.”
Next week: The long journey back from May 11, 1970.
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