ELKHART, Ind. (WOOD) - "Yes, it sounds like a freight train, but there's a distinct whistle," Debbie Watters said. "I don't know how to explain it."
Watters was 6 when she survived a tornado that killed 49 people in Elkhart, Indiana on Palm Sunday in 1965. That same day, twisters ripped through five states, including sections of West Michigan.
In all, there were 47 confirmed tornadoes, 271 people killed and 3,400 injured, the second-largest tornado outbreak in US history.
Since that day, she's spent her life on a mission to alert people when tornadoes are coming, in large part to honor her brother -- one of the 49 who died.
"It was a sunny day. It was a very warm day," she told 24 Hour News 8. Her brother, Stevie, warned the family.
"Stevie said, 'Mom, there's a tornado coming here.' And Mom said, 'How do you know?' and he said, 'The TV just said so, and I see it right there.'"
That was their last conversation.
"I just looked at him and those big blue eyes and said, 'Goodbye, Stevie.' And then the tornado was on top of us."
Over the years, she built a memorial to him at the spot "where we lived when the tornado hit. ... where my brother died."
Hours later, tornadoes were bearing down on West Michigan and killed six people.
Jeff Spruit was 8 years old. "Oh, yeah, I still remember it," he told 24 Hour News 8. "It was like the heavens were falling down."
He and his brother Jerry, 5 at the time, were at the Swan Inn in Alpine Township. Their father owned and operated the inn which was crushed when the tornado hit.
There were "no warnings back in the day," Spruit said. "Other than the rumble of the house, we had no idea tornadoes were coming."
The Spruits all ran to the basement, and the "next thing we know, the whole thing was flattened. We made it just in the knick of time."
Their business, their livelihood, their home was gone.
"The devastation. Nothing there. It takes your heart and sucks it right out of you," he said.
The Spruits rebuilt the motel and now Jeff Spruit is a co-owner. At their restaurant, photos show the damage from that day, and every once in a while they relive that particular Palm Sunday.
"We bring it up and talk about it," he said, making sure this time they're prepared for whenever another storm may hit.
Which brings us back to Debbie Watters in Elkhart, Indiana.
Today's alerts, texts and warnings are all great, she said. But she swears by weather radios, with the instant alarms directly from the National Weather Service.
She wants every home to have a weather radio, much like smoke detectors.
"It will wake you up, it will keep you up and give you plenty of time to take action," she said. "I don't want to see people go the rest of their lives and say, 'If only.'"
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