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Five Dead, Dozens Injured In West Memphis Tornado With Storms Rdp Bjt

December 15, 1987 GMT

WEST MEMPHIS, Ark. (AP) _ A tornado unleashed by a nationwide storm system ripped a path 300 feet wide through shopping malls and apartment buildings, killing at least six people and forcing 4,500 from their homes, authorities said.

Reports of looting in the mile-long wake of Monday night’s twister prompted Gov. Bill Clinton to send in 50 Arkansas National Guardsmen and additional state troopers, said his spokesman, Mike Gauldin.

The tornado hit the southwest corner of this city of 28,000 about 9:40 p.m. Monday and cut through the central business district and jumped into a residential area, said Mayor Keith Ingram. Scores of people were hurt; An infant was among those killed.

Crittenden County Coroner Marvin Thompson said early today after five bodies were found that he feared the death toll would rise.

″They’re still searching apartment buildings and shopping malls,″ he said. ″I don’t think this will be the end of it.″

However, a search of the damaged apartment complexes was almost complete by midmorning and only one additional body had been recovered, said Police Lt. Gary Gitchell.

One hundred homes were damaged or severely destroyed, and some 4,500 people were displaced, said Gitchell.

″Some homes have got such bad places in the roofs or end walls gone, that it’s just not feasible for the people to stay there, it’s not safe,″ he said.

Maddux Elementary School was destroyed, Ingram said.

The Red Cross set up emergency shelters at the West Memphis Civic Center and at the National Guard Armory, said Gary Talley, spokesman for the Arkansas Office of Emergency Services.

The tornado was spawned by the same storm system that dumped snow on the Midwest today and paralyzed cities in Texas and New Mexico on Sunday and Monday, causing six deaths. Twisters were also sighted Monday in Mississippi, Missouri and Tennessee, where up to 20 homes were destroyed.

Gitchell said two of the dead were identified as 1-year-old Hellen Beasley, killed in an apartment, and John David Russell, 17, of Heth, Ark., who was found in the parking lot of a grocery store.

The unidentified body found today was under a car. Other victims were a 66- year-old man found in a car, a 48-year-old woman found in a field, and a man found crushed in a heavily damaged boarding home for the elderly, authorities said.

Rep. Bill Alexander, D-Ark., today asked President Reagan today to declare the city a disaster area and urged Clinton to also push for federal help.

Talley said 136 people were injured, including 28 who were admitted to hospitals. He said two people were reported missing.

″I lost count at 60 in the emergency room,″ said Myrna Clark, the hospital’s supervisor of admissions. ″They’ve come in bloody, lot of fractures.″ No conditions were known early today, she said.

Businesses for several hundred yards along the city’s main thoroughfare, Broadway, were ripped apart, and residential areas on either side of the tornado’s path were demolished.

The tornado brushed by Southland Greyhound Park, frightening thousands who turned out for the season’s closing night of dog racing.

One of them was Don Riggs, athletic director at Jonesboro High School, who said the air grew warm and still and was followed by an intense lightning storm and churning. He got to an exit door but couldn’t open it because of air pressure.

″Stuff was flying in the air″ outside, he said.

The one-story home for the elderly where one body was found ″looked like it exploded,″ said Kate Dickson, managing editor of the West Memphis Evening Times.

John Frasure, manager of the West Memphis Holiday Inn, which gave tornado victims and rescue workers free rooms, said of the destruction: ″It’s terrifying, really, to look at. Many of the homes were flattened. Several businesses are leveled. One home that I remember, a pick-up truck was on top of the home. It’s really scary.″

Power was interrupted to West Memphis and several surrounding cities when Arkansas Power & Light Co. lost two 500,000-volt lines and three 161,000-volt lines in the city, said spokesman John Heuston.

Richard Rose, AP&L’s local manager, said the outage affected about 4,000 customers.