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Jarrell marks 20 years since tornado that killed 27

First responders and family members are revisiting Jarrell 20 years after the tornado that killed 27 people there. (CBS Austin)

First responders and family members are revisiting Jarrell 20 years after the tornado that killed 27 people there.

May 27th, 1997, what started as a small rope tornado intensified as it tracked southwest toward the small town of Jarrell in Williamson County. That deadly tornado was rated an F5 with winds over 260 miles per hour. That’s the strongest tornado to ever hit this part of Central Texas. Less than 1 percent of all tornadoes reach F5 or EF5 status. (The EF-Scale was not adopted until 2000.)

Williamson County Paramedic Commander Bryan Wiseman was on call that Tuesday afternoon and drove from Round Rock to Jarrell expecting one thing. “We thought we'd see some roofs blown off, some trees over, some cars messed up, and when we got here what we saw was flat concrete,” Wiseman says.

The tornado damage was so complete that it was hard for Wiseman and his fellow first responders to even recognize they had made it to the Double Creek Estates Neighborhood where they had been dispatched. “You never know every day what you're going to do. That day, this is what we had to do, and you just have to put all personal feelings aside and take care of people. Unfortunately, we didn't find anyone to take care of.” What started as a search and rescue mission turned to recovering the dead just minutes after emergency workers arrived. “It became very hard and there was nobody to help,” Wiseman recalls.

The tornado was three-quarters of a mile wide and barely moving at the point it was causing total destruction in Double Creek. It pulled up the pavement, tore out the grass and trees, sent cars flying a half mile away and wiped every house on the street off the map. One of the homes belonged to Keith and Cindy Moehring. Keith’s sister Linda Barr described the scene she witnessed the next day. “It was just the foundation, there wasn't anything left. It was just all foundations. nothing. It was all brown and devastated. something terrible had took place there.” Six people were inside the home when the tornado struck. Linda’s brother Keith, his wife Cindy, their teenage sons Erik and Ryan and two other boys who sought refuge with the Moehring family. All six died.

Barr lost four relatives far too soon. She described her brother. “Keith was my older brother, he was five years older than I am, lot of fun. He was a good guy.” He, his wife and their sons are buried together at the Odd Fellows Cemetery in Georgetown. Barr says, “all you can do it imagine what they went through. you can't even comprehend the pain and suffering. it's just no place you ever want to go.”

The names of the Moehring family along with 23 others are engraved on a memorial in Downtown Jarrell which serves as a lasting reminder of what forever changed the town. The memorial is also dedicated to a woman who was killed in another tornado in Jarrell in 1989. Five members of the Igo family also passed away in the 1997 tornado. The land where their home once stood, adjacent to the Double Creek Estates, is now Jarrell Memorial Park, dedicated to the 27 tornado victims. At the park, 27 trees were planted in their honor.

Commander Wiseman says to the family members of those who were lost, “I'm sorry. For us we wish we could have done more. We feel like we didn't do a whole lot because they were already gone when we got here, and we wish there had been more we had saved."

Linda Barr says the pain doesn’t go away, and it’s always worse in May when the anniversary arrives. "That tornado just robbed us, hijacked the rest of our lives, because this is always with us everywhere you go. In a crowd of people, I see someone that resembles Keith and I know it's not him, but I just can't stop thinking about it. It never goes away."

Both Wiseman and Barr agree that if the same tornado were to hit today, modern technology like cell phones, radar apps and up-to-the-minute tornado tracking would likely save more lives.

Saturday May 27th, 2017, two memorial services will be held, one at 11 a.m. and another at 3 p.m. at the memorial located at 212 N 5th St, Jarrell, TX 76537. Family members, friends, first responders and the public are invited to share stories and remember those lost in the tornado.

More information on the Jarrell, Cedar Park and Lakeway Tornadoes on May 27th, 1997 from the National Weather Service: http://www.weather.gov/ewx/JarrellTornadoAnniversary

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