Seventy years ago Friday, a tornado swept through the main part of Pryor, taking 52 lives, injuring hundreds and leaving a wide swath of property devastation in its wake.
Today, the storm still ranks as one of the five deadliest in Oklahoma history.
The tornado began taking shape on that Monday, April 27, 1942, around Talala in Rogers County. After disappearing into the sky for a short time, it reappeared at 4:45 p.m. and touched down along Highway 20 west of Pryor.
The storm tore through the heart of town, along Main Street, what is Graham Avenue today, and continued hurtling toward the cemetery.
Before it had completed its rampage, the tornado sucked the top off the water tower near the cemetery and deposited it on the ground — as if it were taking the cap off a thermos and placing it on a table.
A number of current Pryor residents remember vividly the events of that fateful day.
Wanda (Manning) Mallory was preparing for her graduation from Pryor High School later in the week.
She began that Monday planning to drive to Claremore to shop for shoes. She borrwed her fiance’s car, but her mother refused to let her make the drive.
After school, Wanda was arranging to meet her fiance, Bill Mallory, at 4:45 in front of Cy Perkins’ cafe on Main Street.
Heavy rains had flooded some streets in town, and Wanda had to detour away from Elliott Street. When she eventually arrived in front of the cafe, she still was a few minutes early. The last remaining parking space was taken, so she drove back home on Adair Street to change clothes.
It proved to be a fortutious decision.
The tornado ripped right through the downtown area while she was gone.
When she returned to the cafe, wreckage was everywhere. But Bill had not arrived.
As it turned out, he was late because he had hitched ride with a friend. But the friend had locked himself out of his car and that timely mishap caused both Bill to miss the wrath of the storm.
Neither Mallory nor Bill knew the other was safe.
Later, amidst the devastation and confusion, they found each other.
“There was no warning that I know of, but the color of the sky as I turned to go south [prior to the storm] was a greenish yellow,” she said this week. “You could see that color coming from Claremore. But that’s all I knew about it, and I didn’t know anything before I got to town.”
Mallory’s high school class held its graduation in a movie theater because it was the only structure left standing that was large enough to accommodate the ceremony.
She and Bill were married three months later.
Carl Curry was Pryor’s mayor from 1983 to 1987 and again from 1997 to 2001.
He was 17 in April of 1942 and was in the stockroom of a five-and-dime store on that Monday.
The lights went out and the roof fell in, crushing a girl three feet away from him, he recalled this week.
He was one of some 12 people trapped in the store after the tornado.
His only injury was a shard of glass imbedded in his backside.
Once he emerged from the crumpled building, Curry saw Main Street filled with bricks and mortar.
His future wife, Billie Littlefield, was in Beasley Cleaners when the tornado hit. A sheet of tin had ripped through a window as Billie and her mother, Wilma, were hiding among the clothing.
Curry said that Sam Sutter was a mechanic at the Chevrolet dealership in town. Sutter was working under a car when the tornado hit and drowned in the subsequent deluge of rainfall.
According to town historian Terry Lamar, Lester Taylor was a 16-year-old going into the Western Auto Store to get a tire for his bicycle when the storm hit and took his life.
Among various reports of the day, a Judge Nicklin leaving the courthouse saw the storm approaching and sought shelter in the nearby home of a Mrs. Burdick. The tornado destroyed the house and took both their lives.
A Mrs. Ramsey, on the east of town when the tornado arrived, was impaled by a board and died a few days after the storm.
The tornado produced a variety of heroic acts in town.
DuPont had a gun powder plant south of town in what is today the Mid-America Industrial Park.
Men from the plant, including Bill Mallory, brought in heavy equipment to dig people out of the rubble.
DuPont provided lighting for the work crews digging people out after dark.
DuPont was credited with helping to rebuild the town at no cost to the people of Pryor.
According to Lamar, having DuPont nearby was instrumental in saving the town despite the on-going war.
Pryor Utility Superintendent R.D. Morgan was another hero of the storm.
Morgan saw the tornado coming and immediately shut off the gas flow into the town.
It is believed that Morgan saved many lives that day because there were no gas explosions from ruptured lines, as has been the case in other areas where tornadoes have struck.