Written By: Ben Cosgrove

On the afternoon of May 11, 1953, an F5 tornado made a direct hit on Waco, Texas. (On the scale for rating rotational intensity created by storm researcher Ted Fujita, an F5 twister is capable of “incredible damage.”) In a matter of minutes, in the face of cyclonic winds that likely topped 300 mph, hundreds of homes and businesses were utterly destroyed; thousands of cars were damaged or totaled; almost 600 people were injured and 114 were killed.

It remains one of the deadliest tornados in American history. 

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….

Liz Ronk edited this gallery for LIFE.com. Follow her on Twitter @lizabethronk.

Waco, Texas, after an F5 tornado hit the city, May 1953.

Waco, Texas, after an F5 tornado hit the city, May 1953.

John Dominis/Life Pictures/Getty Images

Rescuers attempt to free a woman trapped in rubble, Waco, Texas, May 1965.

Rescuers attempted to free a woman trapped in rubble, Waco, Texas, May 1965.

John Dominis/Life Pictures/Getty Images

Waco, Texas, after an F5 tornado hit the city, May 1953.

Waco, Texas, after an F5 tornado hit the city, May 1953.

John Dominis/Life Pictures/Getty Images

Waco, Texas, after an F5 tornado hit the city, May 1953.

Waco, Texas, after an F5 tornado hit the city, May 1953.

John Dominis/Life Pictures/Getty Images

Scene of destruction in Waco, Texas, after an F5 tornado hit, May 1953.

Scene of destruction in Waco, Texas, after an F5 tornado hit, May 1953.

John Dominis/Life Pictures/Getty Images

Waco Tornado, 1953

In the downpour which followed the twister, a group of volunteer workers stood aside as another body was found in the ruins of the Torrance pool hall where 25 players, mostly teenagers, were trapped and killed when the roof caved in.

John Dominis/Life Pictures/Getty Images

Waco Texas Tornado 1953

At 2:30 A.M., a power saw was 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.”

John Dominis/Life Pictures/Getty Images

Waco Tornado, 1953

A human chain of rescue workers operated outside this building throughout search for Lillie.

John Dominis/Life Pictures/Getty Images

Waco Tornado, 1953

At 6:45 A.M., Lillie Matkin’s ordeal ended, 14 hours and eight minutes after she was trapped and able only to wiggle her feet. Gently as they could, the men who had labored through night to disentomb her carried her out of the wreckage. Near the end of her entrapment a worker removed her shoes and before she was lifted out she cautioned, “Don’t lose them. They’re old but comfortable.” The shoes were brought to her later at the hospital.

John Dominis/Life Pictures/Getty Images

Lillie Matkin, Waco tornado survivor, is freed from rubble, May 1965.

Lillie Matkin, a Waco tornado survivor, was freed from rubble, May 1965.

John Dominis/Life Pictures/Getty Images

Waco, Texas, after an F5 tornado hit, May 1953.

Waco, Texas, after an F5 tornado hit, May 1953.

John Dominis/Life Pictures/Getty Images

Vigil without hope was kept by Mrs. Beth Parten, 25, whose husband, Cecil, was missing. She alternated between listening to reports coming in by portable radio in store and keeping watch in car parked outside the Red Cross headquarters. After two nights of waiting, workers found her husband's body.

A vigil without hope was kept by Beth Parten, 25, whose husband, Cecil, was missing. She alternated between listening to reports coming in by portable radio in the store and keeping watch in a car parked outside the Red Cross headquarters. After two nights of waiting, workers found her husband’s body.

John Dominis/Life Pictures/Getty Images

Men look out at destruction in Waco, Texas, after an F5 tornado hit the town, May 1953.

Men looked out at destruction in Waco, Texas, after an F5 tornado hit the town, May 1953.

John Dominis/Life Pictures/Getty Images

Waco Texas Tornado 1953

A respite from horror came for Seaman Howard Wilkerson, 18, after a dreadful moment. Just before this picture was taken he had helped to remove the bodies of a dead man and woman from a car which had been crushed by a falling wall. Shaken by the sight, he said, “I wonder if I will ever sleep again.”

John Dominis/Life Pictures/Getty Images

Scene of destruction in Waco, Texas, after an F5 tornado hit, May 1953.

Scene of destruction in Waco, Texas, after an F5 tornado hit, May 1953.

John Dominis/Life Pictures/Getty Images

Scene on a Waco, Texas, street after an F5 tornado hit the city, May 1953.

Scene on a Waco, Texas, street after an F5 tornado hit the city, May 1953.

John Dominis/Life Pictures/Getty Images

Rescuers administer oxygen to a survivor in Waco, Texas, after an F5 tornado hit the city, May 1953.

Rescuers administered oxygen to a survivor in Waco, Texas, May 1953.

John Dominis/Life Pictures/Getty Images

Rescuers administer oxygen to a survivor in Waco, Texas, after an F5 tornado hit the city, May 1953.

Rescuers administered oxygen to a survivor in Waco, Texas, May 1953.

John Dominis/Life Pictures/Getty Images

Scene on a Waco, Texas, street after an F5 tornado hit the city, May 1953.

Scene of destruction in Waco, Texas, after an F5 tornado hit the city, May 1953.

John Dominis/Life Pictures/Getty Images

Clean-up and recovery efforts in Waco, Texas, after an F5 tornado hit the city, May 1953.

Clean-up and recovery efforts in Waco, Texas, after an F5 tornado hit the city, May 1953.

John Dominis/Life Pictures/Getty Images

A crowd around an ambulance in the aftermath of the 1953 Waco tornado that killed 114 people.

People crowded around an ambulance in the aftermath of the 1953 Waco tornado that killed 114 people.

John Dominis/Life Pictures/Getty Images

Scene of destruction in Waco, Texas, after an F5 tornado hit, May 1953.

Scene of destruction in Waco, Texas, after an F5 tornado hit, May 1953.

John Dominis/Life Pictures/Getty Images

A survivor surveys the destruction in Waco, Texas, after an F5 tornado hit, May 1953.

A survivor surveyed the destruction in Waco, Texas, after an F5 tornado hit, May 1953.

John Dominis/Life Pictures/Getty Images

Destroyed homes, Waco, Texas, May 1965.

Destroyed homes, Waco, Texas, May 1965.

John Dominis/Life Pictures/Getty Images

Funeral following the May 11, 1965, tornado that killed 114 people.

A funeral following the May 11, 1965, tornado that killed 114 people.

John Dominis/Life Pictures/Getty Images

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