Current Cedar Park Fire Chief James Mallinger, a young firefighter who had been on the job just over a year, was one of the city's first responders on May 27, 1997 when a powerful tornado tore into Cedar Park destroying businesses, homes and injuring dozens of people.
On that day 20 years ago, Mallinger had been at Lake Travis with his unit. which was supporting the efforts to recover the body of a drowning victim, when his dispatcher warned about the worsening weather conditions.
"On the way back to Cedar Park we could see lots of the little finger tornadoes forming in the clouds," Mallinger said. "We didn't really see the tornado that hit Cedar Park, there was so much debris flying around our truck it was difficult to see anything."
"But when we got to the Albertson's grocery store we could see that the roof had collapsed," Mallinger said. "There were people trying to get out of the store." Several people were injured at Albertson's that day, but store manager Larry Fore was credited with saving many lives.
"He urged store employees and customers to take shelter in the store's cooler," said Mallinger. "He saved a lot of that day. One employee who didn't get to the cooler was the grocery manager, he was buried in debris. We got him out, but he was seriously injured."
Fore told first responders after he and about 40 his employees and customers were rescued from the Albertson's freezer that he couldn't stop shaking. "It wasn't from the cold or shock," he said after his rescue. "It was just a reaction to the situation."
The tornado, rated an F3 by storm experts, hit Leander as well as Cedar Park. In addition to destroying Albertson's, it collapsed the roof of the Texas Trucking Co. In Leander. A heavily laden truck was tossed 200 yards.
The newly remodeled Central Baptist Church was also demolished. The pastor and church employees were not in the building when the tornado hit. "No one was hurt in our building," said the Rev. Ed Conroy said after the storm passed. "It was a blessing. The loss of things can be replaced."
"We were watching the tornado," A.P. Hogan, who lived in the Buttercup Creek subdivision, told reporters that day. "When I saw the church steeple go, I knew I was in trouble." Damage to the homes in the subdivision was very heavy and that was where the only Cedar Park fatality occurred, although it was attributed to a heart attack, not the storm.
There was heavy damage at the Walgreen's drugstore in Cedar Park and a Mustang parked on the Walgreen's lost was picked up, tossed 300 feet in the air and then dropped near U.S. 183. A Blockbuster Video in Cedar Park was also destroyed.
As bad as the toll of destruction was in Cedar Park and Leander that day, things were much worse in nearby Jarrell where an F5 tornado, part of the same system that spawned over 20 funnel clouds in the area, killed 27 people.
The Jarrell tornado funnel was three-quarters of a mile across and moved along the ground for over seven miles. Today, 20 years later, the Jarrell tornado remains one of the most violent and destructive in Texas history.