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Deadly tornado only one chapter of Jarrell history, the community the whole story

Those who lived through the F-5 tornado 25 years ago look back on what good came out of such a tragedy.

JARRELL, Texas — Jarrell was such a small town when the F-5 tornado struck in May 1997, killing 27 people. Barely over 400 people lived there, so everyone knew everyone.

Even though the town has grown since that day 25 years ago the impact of the tragedy hasn't left the minds of those who lived through it.

"When you go through an experience like that, it is so imprinted in your brain that it's just vivid and it stays vivid," said Priscilla King, who owned a child care facility in Jarrell for more than 25 years. "I don't think any of the people that had those experiences will ever forget how they felt on that day."

King describes Jarrell as a town with rich history and good people, but others know the Central Texas town as a site of devastation.

"When you Google Jarrell -- what you get is a tornado, but that doesn't define the town," she added.

King considers herself the town historian, she's even co-authored a book about Jarrell -- mainly to tell the story right.

She says the correct story is that the deadly tornado is only a small sliver of the town's history.

"I certainly think that we should learn from our past and pass that on," King said.

Twenty-five years ago on May 27, 1997, King was working at her child care facility off I-35. She says it was the only facility in town at the time so she got to know many of the kids and their families.

King knew there was severe weather predicted that day as storms were popping up all across Central Texas. But then things escalated for the town of Jarrell.

"I remember where I was, what I was doing, what it looked like, and so no -- it doesn't seem like 25 years by a longshot," she said.

When the storm hit, King said people off I-35 started coming into her child care facility to take shelter as Texas DPS was directing drivers to get off I-35.

King recalls seeing a rope-like tornado heading straight for her facility but then it changed direction. She said she felt a sense of relief but then she saw another tornado.

"I called it a vertical cloud," she recalls. "It was kind of white and it was wide, but it went straight down. It didn't have a tail, but I could see at the bottom that it was kicking up debris."

Just on the other side of town in plain sight, King saw the massive tornado that would take the lives of 27 people, 13 of them children.

"One of my teachers went home to find her dad had perished," she said. "So, you know we were just so close. There wasn't any of us that lived there that didn't know everybody."

King says the number of funerals they attended in the days to come was very sobering.

RELATED: The Jarrell tornado: 20 years later

As 27 people perished in the violent tornado, some long-time Jarrell residents fortunately survived.

"It still is emotional, it's still fearful and I guess that'll never end," said LaDonna Peterson whose family lost everything in the storm.

The F-5 tornado took everything in its path, including many houses on County Road 305 where Peterson lived.

"It was like a bomb went off out here," she recalled.

Peterson and a couple of her family members were taking shelter in a bathroom together when the storm hit.

When they could tell the storm had passed, they crawled out and the bathroom walls were the only thing left standing on the multi-acre property.

"The hardest thing when you go through something like that is when it's over and you turn around and you don't even have a toothbrush for your child or clean clothes or food and it's hard," Peterson said.

Almost everything was gone, but her family unharmed.

"You lose a lot of memories, a lot of tangible things, but if you walk away with your family -- that's the best thing you can get," she said.

Of those who passed away, some of the victims were entire families like the Igos and the Moehrings.

Multiple generations wiped out.

"We felt very lucky that day for us because our generations were saved, but you always wonder why -- why me, why not them?"

Peterson says after the deadly tornado the entire community became a family.

"It was amazing what they did," she said. "They opened up the schools, they made meals, they made places for people to sleep."

It's a vision King chooses to hold on to every single day.

"I saw so much goodness come from something that was so terrible," King added.

May 27, 1997, is a hard day for many to talk about, but King wants people to try and remember the good and how it's helped shape the town.

"It doesn't have to pull us back to the to that day," she said. "It's a commemoration of how far we've come and what good we've been able to do for others since then."

She leaves one message with everyone -- know the deadly tornado is only a couple pages of Jarrell's history.

But, love and community tells the whole story.

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