‘I Will Never Forget it,’ Kalamazoo Tornado: 25 Minutes of Terror
“I will NEVER forget it. Horrible day. But I remember that day like it happened yesterday!! I was home from school sick and it was awful!!”
One of the indelible memories etched in Robin Kalleward’s mind; A then nine-year old, home from school on May 13th, 1980. Home was on Northampton Road, where the funnel cloud first began to unleash its deadly power. “Freaks me out whenever they talk about conditions for a tornado.”
“(It) plays in my mind just like it happened at the time” – Robin Kalleward
“Yes, the tornado was actually in my backyard! My mom saw it, it stopped at our tree, went up and over, between my house and the house on the corner but did nothing to ours but a block down demolished several!”
The Kalamazoo Tornado went through the city at just after 4:00 pm, forty year ago. According to wikipedia, the tornado was rated F3 on the Fujita scale, meaning winds in excess of 150 mph, and causing “severe damage”. An F5 is the worst on the scale.
The tornado killed 5 people and injured 79. Damage was estimated at $50,000,000.
As the funnel cloud moved east, incredibly, almost exactly along a path that most west side Kalamazoo residents take coming into downtown, along West Main Street, it touched down again. As it reached the edge of West Main Hill, it took its first life, Marie Gilman, a 31 year old newlywed, married just three days earlier, seeking shelter in a laundry business. The winds crumbled the building and that crashing rubble took her life.
The tornado then headed for downtown. It passed through the St. Augustine property, doing heavy damage on several structures, including tearing apart the gym in the school. Had the tornado come through 90 minutes earlier, school would’ve been in session.
The twister then darted over to the southeast, to the intersection of Michigan and Park Sts, doing damage there. It then slammed into the ISB Building (now named the Comerica Building). The building’s roof was torn off, but the most visible damage was to its glass façade, almost completely smashed. As it was slamming the ISB Building, it was tearing trees out of the ground in Bronson Park.
Its unpredictability continued as the tornado continued roaring to the east, to and past the Kalamazoo Mall, and into Farmer’s Alley as it tore off the back part the Gilmore Brothers Department Store building. This is where two more of the five fatalities happened
The entire blast of destruction took less than 30 minutes, though it probably seemed like forever. After the Mall damage, the funnel headed toward Portage Rd, then off to King Highway and into Comstock.
Michigan Governor William Milliken was on the scene a few hours later. Surveying the damage, he said “it reminds me of a bombed-out city.”
For anyone who wasn’t around on that day, or in those subsequent months and years as buildings were razed or rebuilt, you wouldn’t even know it happened. I arrived in Kalamazoo less than a decade later and lived on Northampton for almost two decades. There are photographs and grainy videos. But there are no actual signs, really nothing to indicate what transpired forty years ago; only what’s etched in the survivors’ minds.
Sam Zomer is a lifelong Kalamazoo area resident and professional photographer, who was living in the downtown area when the tornado hit. He immediately grabbed his camera and went around the immediate downtown area, recording what had happened. What follows are his photographs,and those of the WKZO-TV camera-persons. so many of the images are ones that look very familiar, yet for one afternoon, surreal.