John Dominis—Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images“2:30 A.M., a power saw is used to cut away some timbers. Afraid she might be cut, Lillie [Matkin] said, “I’ve been here 10 hours — a little longer won’t hurt.”
In the immediate aftermath of the tornado, LIFE’s John Dominis and correspondent Scot Leavitt, who had just recently moved to Texas, made their way to the devastated city. All of the photos in this gallery, many of which never ran in LIFE, are Dominis’s; in a note sent to LIFE’s editors in New York, Leavitt noted that “through virtually all [of Dominis's] shooting, rain fell, the sky was dark and the mood was somber.”
For its part, LIFE wrote of the disaster in its May 25, 1953 issue:
By May 11 the warm, close weather was uncomfortably routine to the people of Waco, Texas. The day before had been muggy and the day before that, too. The big news in the Morning News-Tribune was of a tornado in far-off Minnesota. At mid-morning the New Orleans weather bureau warned there might be a few tornadoes close to home. But an Indian belief that tornadoes would never strike Waco had always held true and no one in the city worried about the report At 1:30 .m. the Waco weather forecaster announced, “No cause for alarm.”
Three hours later the skies suddenly darkened. people scurried for shelter from the hail and slashing rain, and at the edge of town a cemetery workman looked up to see a thick black wedge forming under a low cloud … At 4:37 p.m. the black wedge in the sky struck Fifth and Austin [streets], gouged the earth for a block and left the heart of Waco a broken coffin for scores of schoolboys, housewives, motorists….