Two days before her 14th birthday, Paula Crow went shopping with her mom, driving a blue Plymouth Duster through Tulsa as the sky turned dark and eerily green.
“If I tell you to get out and get in the ditch,” Crow’s mother said, “just do it.”
“No way,” she thought. “I’m not going to ruin these white bell-bottom pants.”
They made it to an uncle’s house, where they jumped out of the car and ran across the yard toward a storm shelter, where her relatives were screaming: “It’s behind you. Hurry!”
“It was like a scene from ‘Twister,’ ” Crow remembers. “We got in and pulled the door down over us.”
Forty years later, the June 8, 1974, storm remains the most devastating tornado outbreak in Tulsa history, doing nearly $44 million in damage, according to the county assessor’s office at the time. Today, with inflation, the total would be close to $212 million.
Often called “the Brookside Tornado,” it was actually a barrage of multiple funnels wreaking havoc not only in Brookside but across much of south and east Tulsa as well, leaving a trail of destruction from Oral Roberts University all the way to East Central High School, more than 10 miles away. In fact, some of the worst damage came at 21st Street and Garnett Road, where the storm gutted a TG&Y store.
Stroud, Mannford, Kiefer, Skiatook, Sapulpa, Broken Arrow and Owasso also reported damage.
But Brookside suffered worse. A massive tree smashed into a house near 36th Street and Peoria Avenue, where it crushed 70-year-old Joseph Byars as he sat in his favorite recliner.
He was Tulsa’s only fatality, but widespread flooding and other tornadoes killed at least a dozen more people across northeastern Oklahoma that night.
A 2-year-old girl drowned while playing near Town Creek Bridge in Tahlequah. Flying debris impaled a 27-year-old woman in Sperry.
And 13 people died in
Drumright, 40 minutes west of Tulsa, where a massive twister demolished a nursing home and damaged more than 100 homes.
After Sunday school on the morning after the storm, Jerry Pogue went to check on his in-laws, who were staying on a house boat at Keystone Lake.
“An aunt and uncle were sitting on the back of the boat and said my in-laws were still asleep,” remembers Pogue, who is a retired copy editor for the Tulsa World. “I knew something was wrong because my father-in-law never slept past 7 a.m.”
Pogue opened the cabin door to find a pet poodle already in rigor mortis.
The wind and waves apparently shook the boat hard enough to damage an auxiliary engine that George and Midge Battenfield used for heating. Carbon monoxide filled the cabin as they slept, and officials counted them as storm victims.
The tornado that damaged Keystone’s Pier 51 at 6 p.m. had devastated Drumright an hour earlier, leaving a debris track 300 yards wide and more than 30 miles long.
Later, between 7:13 and 7:38 p.m., two more tornadoes struck Tulsa itself, where seventh-grader Beth Donica was supposed to be sitting down to eat lasagna and watch “All in the Family.” But she was busy opening windows, a common tornado preparation at the time.
“My dad told me not to be silly,” Donica remembers. “There wasn’t going to be a tornado.”
She made him look out the picture window, where debris was already swirling around Park Plaza South, near 71st Street and Memorial Drive.
The family huddled in the hallway as the twister tore off the home’s roof.
“It was so loud,” she says, “but mainly I remember the sound of breaking glass. It seemed like it lasted forever.”
More than 80,000 customers lost electricity, including radio and TV stations. And torrential rain followed the tornadoes, flooding homes that had lost their roofs and hampering rescue efforts as roads became impassable.
The tornado ripped off the third floor of a men’s dormitory at Oral Roberts University, where sophomore Clarence Boyd lived in a second-floor apartment.
Exhausted from working three jobs to pay his tuition, Boyd slept through it.
“People don’t believe it, but I did,” he says, able to laugh about it now. “When I woke up, I went into shock.”
The tornado hopped over the iconic Prayer Tower and several other buildings before smashing what was then the campus’s brand-new Aerobics Center.
“Our angels worked overtime,” says Boyd, now ORU’s dean of spiritual development. “It could have really been worse.”
Indeed, the damage would have been more widespread and the death toll much higher if the tornadoes had stayed consistently on the ground, officials reported at the time. Instead, the funnels repeatedly lifted and descended, demolishing one house and skipping the next.
Certainly, the devastation was nothing compared to Joplin in 2011 or Moore in 1999 and 2013. But it was enough to leave a lasting impression on the Tulsans who lived through it.
“It was one of the most terrifying experiences of my life,” says Judi Grove, who was a 22-year-old employee of Brookside’s Trinity United Methodist Church, where she took shelter in the basement while 90 mph winds inflicted significant damage upstairs.
The tornado destroyed several nearby businesses along Peoria Avenue, including a Braum’s store that was rebuilt and is now home to the Old School Bagel Cafe.
All but one Brookside restaurant, Don’s Tallboy Burgers at 36th Street and Peoria, reopened within a year, according to press reports on the storm’s anniversary. But emotional scars take longer to heal.
“To this day,” says Grove, now director of the Turn Tulsa Pink Program, “when I see a storm coming, I just pray.”