In May, 1980 a Tornado Struck Downtown Kalamazoo with widespread destruction

Tornados, nature's most destructive weather phenomena:

An intense rotating column of wind that extends from the base of a severe thunderstorm to the ground.


Tornado's Destructive Path
A First Hand Account
Another Personal Memory
Tornado Damage Pictures
1980 Tornado by the Numbers - Gazette
Recollections 25 Years Later - Gazette


At 4:10 pm on Tuesday,  May 13, 1980 a tornado touched down west of the city of Kalamazoo and followed Main Street and Michigan Avenue into the center of the city.  Along its path homes were destroyed in suburban Westwood, part of the St. Augustine School was demolished, many of the great trees in Bronson Park were uprooted,

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 and the Industrial State Bank building was heavily damaged. 

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Then, the tornado crossed the mall and struck Gilmore Brothers Department store knocking down the rear wall.  The resulting debris killed three people.

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Postcard photo:  Bronson Park tornado damage on its north side, the County Bldg. is on the right and the 1st Reformed Church is on the left.

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In all the tornado resulted in five deaths, seventy nine people requiring hospital treatment, and an estimated fifty million dollars in property damage, including damage to 1200 homes.  It was determined to be a force 3 tornado on the Fujita Scale (Michigan Tornados 1950 - 1995 ) .

Kalamazoo County  had suffered its first  tornado deaths since August, 1939 and Michigan suffered the greatest number of tornado deaths since the 1953 tornado in the Flint region (Significant Tornadoes in Michigan: 1882-1999 ).

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1980 TORNADO - A First Hand Account

The following images and accompanying description of the 1980 tornado damage were contributed by Jennie Bergerson whose father was an owner of  a company, Kalleward-Bergerson Construction, that bid on repair work.  Contractors like Mr. Bergerson were allowed into the damaged areas before they were reopened to the public.  Tom Duncan from the company took photographs for all the jobs that were to be bid on.  Jennie's mother was working at Gilmore's at the time of tornado and passed on her first hand account to Jennie:

Note: you can compare some of the images with images on the Kalamazoo Mall page.

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"1. - The back alley parking lot area behind Gilmore's and Jacobson's Department Stores - looking toward the back of Dykema's Office Supply store."

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"2. - The (Burdick Street ) Mall (looking north towards Michigan Avenue) ."

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"3. - The tall building is American National Bank building. You can also see the Hepps sign on the left side of the picture."

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"4. - A parking garage. I think it's  the one behind Gilmore's Department Store and/or near Bronson Hospital."

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"5. - The pedestrian mall again."

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"6. - Bronson Park with the Kalamazoo County Building in the background. You have to look closely to notice that many of the trees are on their sides. There are so many trees down that you can't see the park. If you look at the front of the picture you can see a park bench, parking meter and a police officer. "

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"7. - The ISB ( Industrial State Bank ) building, which I believe lost every window in the tornado."

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"8. - Also the ISB building (now the Comerica Bank building)."

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"9.  - The back alley behind Gilmore's and Jacobson's Department Stores. The crosswalk in the middle of the picture is where three people were killed when it fell on them. The side of Gilmore's looked like a doll house where one could take things out of each room and put it in another room. My prom dress was in the alterations department. It was on the side of the building that was destroyed. The dress was gone, never to be seen again. My mother worked at Gilmore's at that time. That day she had parked down in the lower level of the parking garage because Gilmore's let their employees park there for free if they bought something on the day that they parked in the lower level. She was going to get in her car when someone came running out into the parking lot screaming the tornado was coming. She lay down in the area of the parking lot that was between the ramps where the cars go up and down to the different levels because it was protected with a wall. She was not hurt. Our car was fine too. All the cars on top were destroyed."

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"10. - Looking back towards the Gilmore's alley from near Upjohn's (which I think was a research center at the time) and/or Bronson Hospital."


Webmaster's note: Bronson Hospital on the right side of the picture was replaced with a new facility a short distance away.  Demolition of the old building began March 16, 2001.  The main part of Gilmore's was demolished in 2000.

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Another Personal Memory

   Another Personal Memory of the 1980 Tornado   by Jim Krafft

My mother and I were discussing the tornado and  I remembered being a senior in high school walking to work as a cashier at Jewel Food Store at the bottom of Westnedge hill (now a Hardings) when the sirens went off. I wasn't far from home, so I ran back, got the
dog and myself into the basement. My dad worked cross town on Douglas Ave, so I called him to warn him to wait, but was unable to contact him. All was well w/our family. 

I did walk to work (on time, even) and noted many car windows shattered from the change in atmospheric pressure. Friends of mine were in a parking garage on Michigan and noted cars being strewn about. Quite an experience. 

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Tornado Damage Pictures May 13, 1980

Woolworth's on the mall

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 For more information see: 

Vanished Kalamazoo 1980 tornado pictures

 Kalamazoo Public Library: TWISTER!   The 1980 Tornado


Significant Tornadoes in Michigan: 1882-1999

Michigan Tornados 1950 - 1995


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1980 tornado by the numbers

 5 People killed.

 79 People injured.

1,200 People forced from homes.

 F3 Strength of the tornado on the Fujita scale, which classifies tornadoes from F1 to F5. An F3 is a severe tornado with winds of 158-206 mph.

30 Bronson Park trees destroyed.

 1 in 50-100 Frequency (in years) of a tornado hitting a city downtown, according to meteorologist T. Theodore Fujita of the University of Chicago. The developer of the Fujita scale came to Kalamazoo to survey the damage. $50 million Damage estimate in 1980 dollars.

 31 Kalamazoo homes and businesses demolished.

 173 Kalamazoo homes and businesses with moderate to heavy damage.

 16 Minutes it took the tornado to cut an 11-mile-long swath eastward across Kalamazoo after it touched down at4:09 p.m. north of West Main and Drake.

SOURCE: Kalamazoo Gazette 5/13/05

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Tornado Recollections 25 years later

Tornado Recollections 25 years later - published in the Kalamazoo Gazette May, 2005

Some of the letters published follow:

Airborne wife tops daughter's story of encounter with tornado

My daughter Kelly was taking driver's training when she drove through the tornado on West Main Street.

Here's her recollection:

"I was the last of three students to drive. I started out with perfect spring like weather, then all of a sudden, blinding rain, strong winds and flying debris. My fellow classmates were screaming in the back seat of the car as Gilbert H. instructed me to keep driving and to have everyone roll down the windows. It was only minutes, but seemed like hours, driving back toward Kalamazoo Central High School. Mr. H. guided me through falling limbs and trees, downed power lines, pieces of houses flying around us. I felt like the car was going to be airborne. In a few moments it was over, and the sun was shining. We were all speechless. When we arrived at K-Central, Mr. H. jumped out of the car and approached my father speechless, but patient as he told my father of my 'bravery.' I now wonder why he didn't just say, 'Pull over, let me drive.'"

When we finally arrived home, there was my wife lying on the couch, white as a ghost. The first thing I said was: "Wait until Kelly tells you about the tornado that she had to drive through, you won't believe it!" My wife said: "Wait until I tell you what I drove through!"

My wife, Toni, was working for Michigan Bell Telephone Co., and she was driving back to the office from a customer call on North Westnedge Avenue. When she got to the corner of Westnedge and Michigan avenues next to St. Augustine School, she stopped at a red light. All of a sudden her car was lifted in the air several feet onto Michigan. When the car finally came to rest, she saw another car against a telephone pole. She knew that she had to get out of there and drove to the first street not blocked by debris. Afterward, we found pink insulation in every crevice and under the hood of the car. This insulation obviously came from the tremendous impact to the school.

-- Don K.

Taking cover at Upjohn

The bells rang 20 times, the signal at The Upjohn Co. that a tornado was coming. Since no tornado drill was planned and the sky was inky black, we assumed this was no drill. I headed to the stairs and the basement. As I reached the ground-floor landing, the exit doors opened wide all by themselves. I figured the tornado was very close. The indoor air pressure had pushed the doors open in response to the negative air pressure from the tornado.

In a few minutes, the all-clear signal sounded. We came up and looked outside. Insulation was hanging from damaged windows. The ground around the downtown campus was littered with official-looking pieces of paper -- which, it was later rumored, had been sucked out of a bank building on the east end of Bronson Park.

One employee was in his car when the tornado passed. He flattened himself on the car floor and the car windows imploded in on him. Another employee was on the phone while sitting in his sixth-floor office. His boss kept talking until the employee finally told him that a tornado was coming and he had to hang up. As he ran from his office, he saw the wall on the east end of the Gilmore's building had just collapsed.

Thomas H.

Escape to Hepp's

I was a junior at Loy Norrix High School working after school at Hepp's store. I worked on the second and third floors where the stock was stored. After the tornado, the third floor ceased to exist, as did half of the second floor.

The sirens were the first thing to get our attention. I recall the employees huddled around a small radio. My fellow stock boy, Fritz, was an interesting fellow who used to tell me of his days following the Grateful Dead around the country. It was Fritz who deduced before anyone else that we were about to get plastered by a tornado. I vividly remember him running through the store, yelling at the top of his lungs, "It's a ... tornado, get downstairs, a tornado, a tornado!" Many did follow him downstairs and I often wonder if he saved anyone's life or prevented serious injury.

An approaching tornado does indeed sound like a freight train. The roar just builds and builds until your ears pop, then everything goes silent. The front of Hepp's faced East Michigan Avenue and was all glass. I did not follow Fritz's warning immediately and was the last person to make it to the basement. The steps leading to the basement were next to the front windows. Getting to that stairway was like wading upstream against a torrential current. Once I made it to the stairway, I made it down in about two steps. About the time I hit the ground with a thud, the plate-glass window exploded. There were shards of glass shot in every direction like tiny shrapnel from a grenade. Although several people were cut and bleeding, there were no life-threatening injuries.

I remember walking out onto East Michigan and viewing the destruction. Buildings were destroyed and debris was everywhere. I also remember the spirit and generosity of my fellow Kalamazooans in the days and weeks that followed. It is that spirit that the tornado brought out that I will never forget.

James G.

Bronson trees as fuel

I was working at the Kalamazoo Police Department headquarters when the dispatch center received confirmation that a tornado was approaching Kalamazoo. An officer sent to the western limits of the city excitedly called out its path of travel, naming each side street the swath of destruction was crossing.

At the same time, two downtown beat officers had made their way to the roof of what is now the Radisson hotel, and radioed they could see the funnel cloud approaching the heart of downtown. They reported massive amounts of debris swirling skyward, and just before the gymnasium of St. Augustine School was flattened, they retreated to seek cover.

Everyone inside the three-story police headquarters building at Rose and Lovell streets was ordered into the basement. We could hear and feel the low rumbling of the tornado barely a block away as it ripped its way through downtown.

We raced up from the basement, then outside. Almost every window in the 10-story, glass-sided Industrial State Bank building was gone or broken. City streets were blocked by mounds of debris, overturned or rearranged cars, and massive trees that had shaded Bronson Park.

I was the first to reach a motorcyclist who was on Rose Street when a giant Bronson Park oak tree crashed down upon him. It was soon sadly obvious this man was one of the storm's fatalities.

To my amazement, everyone in the Industrial State Bank building survived the direct hit of the tornado. Several people had visible cuts and bruises, but everyone was able to walk out.

When I got to the Kalamazoo Building at Michigan Avenue and the Kalamazoo Mall, dazed and injured people were wandering out of the building. I entered and found a businessman whose white shirt was half soaked with blood. He appeared to have a broken arm, and seemed to be in shock. He didn't know where to go. I used the man's necktie to immobilize his injured arm.

On the Kalamazoo Mall there was a small playground. A three-axle commercial truck was on its side, just inches from the swing set. A witness told me two children were actually using the swing set when the truck was blown over. Somehow, they escaped unhurt.

Afterward, when I eventually got a day off, I brought my chain saw and pickup truck to Bronson Park. City crews were so overwhelmed that I was allowed to help take away downed trees. I had a wood-burning furnace at the time, and I may be the only person in the area to have heated my home for an entire season with wood taken from trees in Bronson Park.

Ronald J.

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Safety in the bank

I was personnel director of First of America Bank Michigan and my office was on the ground level at 108 E. Michigan Ave.

I had just completed an interview with a candidate for our management-training program when the siren sounded. A co-worker, Dave Harrison, came by to tell me of the tornado warning. We went to the bank's Michigan Avenue entrance and couldn't believe our eyes -- we could clearly see the funnel approaching from the west. We hurriedly gathered as many pedestrians from the street as possible and invited them to take shelter in the bank. We all rushed down the stairs to the safety-deposit box area in the building basement. No sooner had we reached the bottom of the stairs, when we heard a crashing sound -- much of the glass of the skylight in the main lobby came crashing down. Fortunately, there were no injuries.

Shortly thereafter, the board of directors emerged from a meeting in the basement. They were unaware of what had just happened except for feeling a sudden change in air pressure caused by the tornado.

That evening, Bill C., Dick C. and I boarded up the bank windows.

The next day I was in line with Irving Gilmore at the fairgrounds waiting to receive a pass so that we could go back into the downtown area to further assess the damage.

Ken C.

Merciless wind

The demon had no mercy. It roared down M-43 with a ferocious growl, tearing apart houses, howling and clawing through the sky, dragging down everything it encountered with its vicious, merciless wind. It devastated the landscape, uprooting trees and telephone poles, tearing ugly holes in sturdy buildings, and leaving beastly memories of pain and death.

The weather on the morning of May 13, 1980, was perfection. Bronson Park was a blaze of red and white tulips and yellow daffodils. The trees waved their lacy, green leaves in the spring breeze and basked languidly in warm sunshine under the bluest of skies. Nobody dreamed that, a few hours later, that same sky would darken under black boiling clouds, and lives would be changed forever.

As the tornado drew closer to the downtown, and the warning sirens screamed, the occupants of what is now the Comerica Bank building, where I worked, began pouring down the stairs to the basement, their faces white with fear. We were many frightened people packed tightly together in a humid, tension-filled atmosphere. Suddenly, the lights went out and a hideous roar filled the air. Terror gripped us. When the emergency lights came on, we watched as the ceiling tiles lifted and settled, filling the air with swirling dust and dirt. Abruptly, one of the elevator doors opened; it was filled with splintered boards and glass. A friend grabbed my arm and whispered, "Oh my God, we're going to die down here."

When the wind finally stopped, and we returned to the main floor, we were astonished at the degree of devastation. Every window in the building was broken, glass still showering from the upper floors. Dirty, shredded curtains flapped limply through dark, gaping holes, electrical wires were down and sparking, and all the majestic trees in the park were uprooted and lying haphazardly, like broken sticks, in debris-strewn streets. When we were allowed to leave the building, we stumbled to our homes in varying degrees of numbness. That evening, while watching the news, it finally hit me. I was actually in that blasted-out hulk of a building they were showing on TV! I cried and shook as I relived the terrible destruction that occurred in Kalamazoo's darkest hour.

Penny B.

Followed by a tornado

I worked for a local office-equipment dealer and on that day had parked our van right behind Gilmore's store in the alley. Unknown to me, the tornado had already ravaged Kalamazoo's west side and, when I came out of the store, the tornado was tearing up Bronson Park and what is now the Comerica Building. Right after I drove off, it hit the Gilmore building and the whole rear wall collapsed, from ground to roof, right where I was parked!

As I drove south on Portage Street, the tornado followed me before veering east about the second block of Portage and carried on destroying buildings. I was unaware of all this until I reached our store just south of Interstate 94. When the secretary asked me if I had seen it, I was amazed -- and also amazed at how lucky I had been.

William D.

Unforgettable birthday

May 13, 1980, was my 25th birthday. I worked for Michigan Bell at 133 W. Lovell St. The tornado hit minutes before my lunch break. After the all-clear was sounded, I hurried from the basement and ran across Lovell to the Michigan Bell/AT&T building on the Kalamazoo Mall (the building now contains condominiums). It was the third tallest building downtown and I knew I would get a good view of any tornado damage from the roof.

I got more than I was looking for.

When I got on the roof, I was stunned at the blueness of the sky. The sun was glowing bright and there was a wisp of white clouds to the east.

I first noticed what was left of Bronson Park. Gaping holes yawned in the canopy of once mighty oak trees. The trees were scattered about as if someone were about to start a game of pickup sticks. I saw firemen working on someone on Rose Street.

The mall looked like it was paved with diamonds from all the shattered glass. A twisted water pipe gushed from the second floor of Gilmore's. The glass was gone in the windows of what is now the Comerica Bank building and the curtains were stuck to the outside wall of the building. And then, up and down the mall, people began to peek out from whatever store or eatery they were trapped in. One step, two steps. Then they flooded out onto the mall. It reminded me of the scene in the "The Wizard of Oz" when the munchkins first encounter Dorothy.

Starting at West Main Hill, it looked like an angry giant had walked through the heart of town randomly smashing buildings and trees. I was overwhelmed by nature's might and sat down in disbelief.

Dan D.

Missing mom

I can't help but be reminded of May 13, 1980.

I have already heard a local radio station's plans of having callers call in about their memories of 25 years ago.

My hope, wish and prayer is that the news media will not only keep in mind all the material devastation that was left behind, but also -- more importantly -- remember those five people who lost their lives.

There are family and friends who can't forget the heartache of that day.

Fortunately, only five people died.

Where we were isn't really as important as what impact that day has had on the lives of the family and friends of those who were taken.

My mother died in the tornado.

This will be a hard week. I certainly wish that things like the tornado and the planes crashing into the World Trade Center weren't such big news. Where are the blessings that are happening in our world today? Good news sometimes just seems to get lost.

Please honor the feelings and emotions of the families and friends. This is a painful time, especially the week of Mother's Day.

Mary M.

Unforgettable bus ride

The tornado struck while I was taking the bus from Sangren Hall to Richland, with a transfer downtown. As the bus approached the intersection of Stadium Drive and West Michigan Avenue, it stopped in front of the Swiss Chalet.

The sky had taken on an ominous yellow tinge -- the color that everyone raised in Michigan learns is that of an oncoming tornado. All of the passengers and the driver sprinted to the Chalet, but I stopped and turned around. What a sight! I had never before seen a twister. The most spellbinding part was the slash-dancing tail, skipping its way directly to me. Then someone behind me bellowed, "Hey! Get in here!" When I entered the Chalet on a dead run, someone pointed down a narrow stairway. All of my fellow passengers were already there.

We waited until someone said it was all clear. We boarded the bus; there wasn't too much damage around the restaurant. As we passed by St. Augustine School, we gasped on seeing the school's collapsed roof. And that was only the beginning. The driver could not proceed any closer to the transfer center and he let us off in front of First Presbyterian Church, amid broken branches, downed wires and shattered glass. No phone service. Eventually, after wading through the debris past Gilmore's collapsed wall, I found the Richland bus and took it to 30th Street and Gull Road. I walked home, arriving at around 7 that night.

Bruce J.

Reporting a funnel cloud

I remember May 13, 1980, as if it was yesterday. I was taking a load of asparagus from Three Rivers to Honey Bear Cannery in Lawton. When I left Three Rivers it was sunny and warm. Off to the west I could see a cloud bank on the horizon, with some very large thunderheads. As I got into Marcellus, the wind began to pick up and it began to rain. By the time I got out of Marcellus, it started to hail, with hailstones the size of marbles. The wind was very strong and it was hard to keep my truck on the road. It only lasted about 10 minutes, until the rain and wind quit and the sun came out. But as I approached Lawton, the sky was pitch black just to the west-northwest.

I couldn't believe my eyes when I saw a funnel cloud that looked close to Interstate 94. When I pulled into the cannery, I told my friend to call the sheriff's department to report a funnel cloud sighting. I went back out with his sister to see it; the sky was pitch black with a yellow color on the outer edges. It was an unbelievable sight.

John A.

Digging out at Gilmore's

It was quitting time at J. B. Printing Co., so I punched out and started walking to the bus. But then I looked west up Kalamazoo Avenue and saw the funnel coming. I ran back and told the boss and everybody there, and we all went to a little room under the stairs.

We heard and felt it go by our building. When it was all calm, I started back downtown. I got by Hepp's clothing store and I knew I wouldn't be riding the bus. I kept making my way down Michigan Avenue and got by Farmers Alley and saw the back of Gilmore's blown out and the bridge walkway down. I headed that way and started to go to work on the pile of rubble looking for any victims. We uncovered five people, hoping they were all right. After we knew everybody was accounted for, they came in with a bulldozer and started to scoop up the rubble. We still kept our eyes peeled. We finally quit about 7 p.m.

I started walking home toward Parchment. I got as far as the McDonald's on Riverview Drive and knocked on the door because they were closed. I looked messy and dirty, but they let me in to use the phone to call home.

My wife did not believe me. She thought I was drunk, the way I was talking, I was so tired. She finally came and believed me when she saw me.

Leo C.

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A missing son

"I know where your daughter is, but not your son," said the voice answering the phone. I was calling my children's baby-sitter from a pay phone in Paw Paw.

As a children's services caseworker, I had spent the day driving the back roads of Van Buren County checking on the welfare of other people's children. Back at the office the first thing I heard was, "Downtown Kalamazoo has been destroyed." My children, David and Sonita, were in downtown Kalamazoo.

The anxiety I felt had me jumping out of my skin. A quick stop at a pay phone sent me relief and fear. My daughter was safe, but my son was nowhere to be found. Sheer "Mommy Power" guided me through twists of branches and wires to my baby-sitter's door.

Sonita, then 5, remembers: "I was at my baby-sitter's and remember there were no adults, just a bunch of children with 10-year-old John in charge. John had a passion for meteorology, and as we sat on the front porch watching the weather, he kept saying, 'This is so cool.' When it got really crazy, we ran downstairs and hid in the basement. I remember thinking: Where is my brother?"

David, age 11, remembers: "I left my baby-sitter's and was heading to an after-school program at Old Kalamazoo Central. Westnedge Avenue was deserted. The wind picked up and I sprinted across the street trying to reach safety before the rain hit. I heard a noise and stopped dead in the middle of the street. The sky was a boiling mass of green clouds. I stood in the middle of Westnedge for a good three minutes staring up at the sky as the tornado passed right over me. I could see it clearly up in the clouds. Its funnel was dangling down, twisting and spinning but it had not yet touched the ground. While I stood there, not a single car passed me. After it passed overhead, I felt I was snapping out of a trance. I turned and ran as fast as I could to the school."

With my daughter's hand in mine, we walked to Old Central. We found David on the second floor with a handful of students and teachers.

Driving home, I looked at my children and knew two things to be true: Nothing could break the loving bond we shared and it was time to find different child care.

Linda K.

Secretary's Day

It was Secretary's Day, and the legal secretaries working in the Ford and Kriekard law firm, including myself, were taken out for lunch by our bosses.

Our offices were located on the 10th floor of what was then the American National Bank building.

During the afternoon, the skies became ominous and, when we observed debris flying down Michigan Avenue, we decided to head for the basement. One of our secretaries insisted she must finish a letter she was typing, but eventually she followed along.

Days later, many of our missing files and legal papers were found at the Kalamazoo Paper Co. a mile away and wrapped in ladies lingerie from Gilmore's store.

Mr. F. from our law firm had this to say: "This will be the last time this office will observe Secretary's Day!"

Mary F.

In the Upjohn basement

I was working on the sixth floor of Building 25 of The Upjohn Co. One of my staff said they heard a radio report of a twister sighting on M-43. I looked out the windows and saw it was very reminiscent of how things looked during some hurricanes I had experienced.

I said, "OK, let's head toward the basement." When we got to the basement, there were no crowds of people and it seemed out of place for us to be there.

We were about to leave when the lights flickered and went out. When they came back on, power came from an emergency source. Still, no alarm came over the public-address system. Shortly thereafter crowds of people joined us in the basement. Some were saying, "I saw it, I saw it!" There were worried looks.

When we left the basement, it was a mess outside. There were downed tree branches and swathes of pink building insulation rolling about the street. Everybody was looking toward the right at the back of Gilmore's department store. It suffered quite a bit of damage -- crushed walls, water spraying out of broken pipes. Farther over, windows of the Old Kent building were knocked out and papers were flying in the air. It was a war zone and a bit scary.

In the subsequent cleanup, the library staff told of powdered glass drilled into the thick bindings of scientific journals stored on the seventh floor of Building 209.

James P.

Glass everywhere

I worked for Domtar Industries Inc. on the fourth floor of the Park Building across from Bronson Park.

Loud sirens were blasting warnings to take cover. The fourth-floor employees ran for the elevator and went to the basement, except for one insurance agent who took cover under his desk. In the basement, you could tell when the tornado hit as the door had a tremendous amount of pressure on it.

Going back up to the office, my boss's chair had a large chunk of glass in the seat. There was glass, wet papers, insulation and you name it all over the two west rooms of the office. The draperies were waving in the breeze from the broken windows. In my office, my electric typewriter was covered with glass. I picked it up and put it in a closet so it

wouldn't be damaged any more.

The sun came out after it was over. My car was covered with glass and everything else in the air. Fortunately, I could still drive it, although later I found it needed a new windshield and a repainting. I had to drive over glass and debris to get out. No stoplights were working. I got back to my home in Climax, safe but shook up.

Theta T.

No calling home

I was working at First of America Bank in the Kalamazoo Center. We knew a storm was coming -- the sky was a strange color and it was very calm. Suddenly, it got very dark and began to blow. Security announced that everyone was to go to the lower level of the building. My co-workers and I started to close up the bank when the windows of the store across the aisle started to blow out and we could hear the skylights falling.

We opted to stay in the bank, got under the counters and rode out the storm. I tried calling home as our youngest son was home from school, but I couldn't call out. My husband was able to call in but the line went dead as we spoke.

Beverly H.

Watching the tornado

When we heard the warning siren, we went to the window and looked outside. The sky was a weird bright green on one side and black on the other.

From our offices on the third floor of the Industrial State Bank building, we watched as a group of kids scurried into the county courthouse across the street. Then all of a sudden a huge funnel appeared, seemingly from nowhere, above the courthouse. It was huge, taking up half the sky. We watched as trees from Bronson Park were being pulled up into the tornado. I thought, "I'll click off a few shots," and grabbed a camera, but no film was loaded.

One of my co-workers, who had foolishly stayed behind with me, shouted, "Let's get out of here," and suddenly we realized we were in great danger. We ran to the stairwell and quickly closed the steel door behind us. We only made it down about a half a flight of stairs and my ears popped, worse than I had ever experienced.

Suddenly, it was very still and quiet, so we headed back up and opened the door we had just closed. It looked like a war zone; the whole floor was covered with automobile glass and pieces of debris. There were parts of boxes that had contained sales materials we had just opened -- these were "distributed" for us, reportedly as far away as Comstock Township. I noticed the large paper cutter and drawing lamp in my work area were missing. I saw the paper cutter next to a couple of cars in the parking area. Then I noticed a cord going out the window and it was my lamp hanging out the window.

My car was parked on the top floor of the Kalamazoo Center ramp and its windows were spared because I had mistakenly left one of the back vents opened just a crack. Every other car up there lost all its windows.

Doug B.

Glad to be home

On May 13, 1980, I was 16 and on my way to my piano lesson at Kalamazoo College. I don't remember any warnings about bad weather. At my lesson, my teacher kept telling me to play louder because he couldn't hear me. I began the piece again and played it as loud as I could. I was pounding on the piano keys. It was the strangest sensation to be playing the piano and not be able to hear myself play. The reason was the wind was whipping furiously through the trees outside.

Someone knocked on the door and said a tornado had been spotted. We hunkered down in the hallway outside the room, which was in the lower level of the building. It sounded like a freight train was approaching the building at record speeds. We sat speechless and waited it out. After the tornado had passed through we stumbled outside to see the damage. The best way I can describe the sensation is surreal. Trees were upended by their roots, cars were crushed under trees and debris was littering the streets.

I slowly drove back home, driving on sidewalks and across yards to avoid trees blocking the street. I was almost home when I heard honking and saw my parents driving toward me honking and waving. I was never so glad to get back home.

Carol K.

Tornado in the distance

I had finished teaching for the day at Gilkey Elementary School in Plainwell and was picking up my two daughters at the baby-sitter's house on West F Ave.

Driving south on 12th Street, I noticed unusual cloud formations. Lower clouds were moving south while the higher clouds were moving north. Then I heard the tornado warning on the radio.

As I arrived at the baby-sitter's house, hail pounded down on my Ford Pinto. I raced into the house only to look out the window and see a tornado in the west.

We rushed to the basement as hail covered the ground. We were spared the tornado's arrival as it veered toward the west side of Kalamazoo, and the rest was history.

Daniel S.

Scattered underwear

I was scheduled to work the 3 to 11 p.m. shift at James River Corp.'s Plant 11 on the curve of East Michigan Avenue, across from the Eastwood Tavern. Arriving at 3 p.m., the guys in the shipping department were watching the skies to the west, toward the river and train yard.

Around 4 p.m., we heard the city sirens. We were told to shut off our machines, so they wouldn't burn, and head for the basement. The guys from shipping were the last ones down. They said they saw the funnel coming over the tracks.

After some time, we all came up from the basement to see what had happened. I don't recall any building damage, only our amazement at the litter and muddy, wet lingerie from Gilmore's department store. Bras, girdles, underwear and nightgowns -- with price tags still attached -- were strewn down the train tracks, on the roof and across the parking lot.

Robin D.

Jury duty interrupted

On May 13, 1980, I was on a jury at the Kalamazoo County Courthouse. The trial had been going on for a week or two and all the jurors were getting tired of the slow proceedings.

What had started as a bright sunny day soon turned dark and cloudy, but it didn't seem anything more than the usual spring storm.

Imagine our surprise when the judge said we were all going to the basement. We were escorted to a lower level that we didn't even know existed. I thought to myself that this was really unnecessary. My mind was soon changed when I heard a rumble like a freight train going over my head. We were kept in that dark basement for a few minutes and then allowed upstairs.

We found most of the windows blown out and debris of all kinds strewn around.

Looking across the street we saw many buildings damaged more than ours. My car was across the street on the top deck of the parking ramp and had quite a bit of damage not visible at first. By the time I got to the top of Westnedge Hill, the sun was shining brightly and no one seemed aware of the damage that had been done just a few blocks away.

Margaret W.

'Tornado coming'

I was looking out the window overlooking Michigan Avenue from the second floor of the Kalamazoo Center, where I worked at a small graphic design firm. The sky was a very odd blackish-green and the clouds were swirling.

All of a sudden, a couple Metro Transit buses stopped abruptly on the street and everyone on them ran off and into the nearest buildings. At the same time, someone burst into our office and yelled, "There's a tornado coming down the street -- get downstairs!"

I leaped down several stairs at a time in the middle of the open-atrium center, trying to get two floors below. I glanced up at the huge skylight above and saw huge parts of trees and roofs flying through the air before the glass began to shatter, luckily missing the stairs I was on. Windows and glass doors on the first floor seemed to implode as I joined the large group of people gathered together on the lowest level. I noticed some had received minor cuts, possibly from being outdoors when the storm hit.

Afterward, while walking outside, the sun began to shine but the surroundings were anything but sunny. The ground was blanketed with broken glass and papers mixed with other debris. Cars and large trucks were tossed about the streets, sidewalks and the Kalamazoo Mall like toys, sitting on their sides.

Kathy T.

Screams from Gilmore's

Our office radio broadcast a report that a tornado had hit near West Main Mall and U.S. 131.

Reasons for ignoring the alert flew fast and furious: Downtown Kalamazoo had never been hit by a tornado before. The rising heat from city pavement would turn a tornado aside. Tornados always followed rivers or low spots. It simply could not happen to us. Not to downtown.

One of Gilmore Broadcasting Corp.'s vice presidents, Lou F., who normally walked at a slow amble due to a back injury, made his way to the front door on the southwest corner of Michigan Avenue and Portage Street. He returned moving faster than I ever saw him move before. The tornado was heading straight toward us. We followed Lou to the basement.

As the tornado passed over, the change in air pressure caused the heavy steel basement fire door to open. The lights flickered off, then emergency lighting took over. After sitting in silence for a few minutes more, we emerged.

The back door opened to the alley shared by Dimitri's restaurant and the parking lot for the Gilmore's department store. I could faintly hear screams from the store. The door was stuck in the frame, the glass broken. Carefully we climbed out. The air was completely still. Totally in shock, we found the entire back wall of Gilmore's crumpled to the alley below. It looked like the back of a dollhouse, with a cutaway for children to move their toys. Phones hung from cords, dangling down a floor or two. Garments, price tags intact, were tangled in the branches of trees planted in the alleyway. Brick dust hung over everything. The pedestrian walkway was gone. Cars on the top level of the parking ramp were no longer in neat, precise rows. I remember hearing crying. I heard it again in dreams for several weeks.

I called my family in Vicksburg, telling the kids I was OK and probably would be late getting home. Then the phone went dead.

The janitor unlocked the door to our roof to check for building damage, and we climbed up to view the city from this higher spot. Amazing! The roof had a hole in it large enough to have dropped a Sherman tank through.

Several of us walked through the building, exiting through the Michigan entrance. Most of the storefront windows had been blown in. Sharp stalactites of glass hung from the upper sills of windows. They shivered, rattled and fell with the tinkling of wind chimes.

Every person in view wore identical expressions of incredulity.

Jeanne L.

Taking cover at library

It started out like any other beautiful sunny May day as I reported to work at the Kalamazoo Public Library.

In late afternoon, an announcement came over the loud speaker instructing everyone to go to the designated room in case of a tornado. Sirens began to go off.

Employees and patrons waited patiently in fear for the all-clear siren.

Finally, it was over and everyone ran to the window to see the aftermath. Trees were down in Bronson Park. It looked like a war zone. Windows were broken in some stores. Michigan Avenue was not recognizable. Police were everywhere.

I had never experienced a tornado. It was something to behold. The amazing part was the time frame. All this destruction took place in a matter of 30 or 45 minutes.

From that day on, I have had the greatest respect for Mother Nature.

Gloria B.

Shelter under a desk

I was working at the H.J. Cooper Dodge dealership on the corner of Park Street and West Michigan Avenue and had gone to the Kalamazoo Mall on an errand. Returning to work, I noticed how dark it had become. As I passed the county courthouse, I saw then-Prosecutor James Gregart standing on the roof and he was pointing to the north where the sky looked really strange.

Not knowing what was going on, I ran the rest of the way back to work to find out that a tornado had been spotted. We had a pretty sturdy building so everyone found a corner or hole and hoped for the best. I found an empty office and crawled under a big desk and pulled the oversized chair behind me to keep the flying glass away. As I was hiding, I peeked out of a small opening. At the height of the storm I saw a small car thrown to the grass in front of the old post office. After the storm passed, the majority of employees stayed in the building all night, eating take-out pizza and drinking pop.

Donald R.

Family safe and sound

On that fateful day, my family and I went about our daily duties. My husband worked at the Kalamazoo Psychiatric Hospital. Our youngest son worked at DeGroot Office Machines. I worked at Bronson Methodist Hospital as a patient representative in the emergency room. Our youngest daughter had a 6-week-old baby. When I first heard of a tornado, I tried to phone her so she could seek shelter but she wasn't home.

At the hospital, we were ushered to a safe place. When it was over, it was obvious the emergency room would be quite busy. People began to trickle in and I was momentarily pleased, thinking it wasn't so bad after all. Then we heard the Gilmore store had collapsed and we feared more would be dead or injured. It was amazing and a blessing no more than five were killed.

When things quieted down, I realized I hadn't given one thought regarding my family. Then my husband and daughter came to the hospital to see about me and it occurred to me that they were all in the path of the tornado. We were blessed. We were all safe. Our son's car was the only one on the block where DeGroot's was located that wasn't damaged. He had been instrumental in getting the employees to the basement for safety. Our daughter was downtown to catch a bus to run an errand, and had gone into a bathroom at what is now the Radisson hotel when the tornado hit. She said she prayed as she realized what was happening.

Catharine S.

Seeing the wall collapse

My husband, Cal, and I were resident managers at the Stratton Arms, which is now the Rickman House on the corner of Burdick Street and Kalamazoo Avenue. The hotel had about 60 older residents who needed a place with meals and housekeeping, medication monitoring, transportation and support.

On May 13, 1980, I went into the kitchen around 4 p.m. to start the evening meal. I could see the sky through the dining-room windows and didn't like what I saw. I called my husband to come down, and as he was coming, the sirens began and the lights went out. He started shepherding folks down the basement stairs. The maintenance man and I started knocking on doors and asking people to go down.

As I came down the stairs around the fourth floor, I had to face the windows. And for the first time I looked out. To the east, I saw the brick wall of Gilmore's just sliding down in a pile. That will forever be etched in my mind.

As I came to the first floor, I was pretty shaky. I grabbed the roster off the desk and continued to the basement.

Calling the roll I found five people unaccounted for -- two people at their jobs, one was with her family, one was taking her daily walk and one was having her hair done. Where were they? At Gilmore's? The last two, I was really worried about. But Kathy (the walker) came in about then, complaining about how windy and noisy it was. Elna had taken shelter with the ladies at the chocolate shop next to Gilmore's; she came through our door eating a cup of ice cream.

Now with all our residents located, I could turn my attention to our 9-year-old son. He was at Western Michigan University for a tutoring session. I was not worried about his safety, but I thought he would be worried about us and his dog Queenie.

I drove to get him and started back downtown, but I was stopped at every block and told no one could go in the area. I ended up driving north and around.

My husband and I had tried to provide as close to a family atmosphere as possible as a family of 60 could be. And our son took his role very seriously, too. After checking on Queenie, he escorted people up and down the stairs the rest of the night. Power came on at 4:10 a.m.

Dot S.

Beam in the windshield

Back in May 1980 I lived in an apartment a few blocks from downtown Kalamazoo.

A friend and I were tinkering with my car when I heard a radio announcer say, "Downtown Kalamazoo will never be the same. A tornado just came through." We were about 12 blocks away and the weather didn't seem all that bad.

Naturally we rushed downtown and got there before the police cordoned off the area. There was debris and destruction everywhere. I saw a young woman standing on the sidewalk outside the magazine store. She was gripping a sign post and just staring across the street. Her face was completely white and expressionless. That's the most enduring memory of the many things I saw. As I walked past her, she never moved. I wondered, "Was she out here the whole time?" Her grip on that post suggested it was probably so.

We climbed to the downtown parking structure and surveyed the scene from there. Across the street stood the Industrial State Bank building, which took the full brunt of the tornado. You couldn't see an intact window in the place. Later we would learn that the entire structure had been twisted four inches at its base.

We worked our way back to South Street. Gilmore's was partially collapsed and I saw water squirting in the air from the severed plumbing. We walked alongside Bronson Park where most of the huge old trees lay on their sides.

In the parking lot of a popular nightclub the cars were tossed about like toys. A wood beam, about 4 inches square and 5 feet long, had been driven through a car windshield and directly into the driver's seat.

I learned that day that it's not the high winds of a tornado that hurt you, it's the stuff flying around and falling that does.

Everywhere we went and looked there were tree limbs and branches and papers. Everywhere. You could hardly take a step without something being underfoot. And every scrap of paper that I picked up and examined had come from the Industrial State Bank. People were later finding deposit slips and canceled checks in Galesburg, 15 miles away.


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