On the morning of October 5th, 2004, dark clouds hung above the brown desert mountains just west of Socorro — a west-central New Mexico town of almost 10,000 people. The day was warm, the sky was gray, and by noon there were tornado warnings.
Around 2 p.m. it started to rain.
Fine-grained hail began to fall, sending up white crowns of water from the town’s half-flooded streets. Students at Socorro’s college, New Mexico Tech (NMT), gathered around plate-glass windows to watch the storm intensify into sheets of rain and hail.
The hail fell pea-sized, then marble-sized, and then the size of golf balls. Hailstones hit lawns and streets and roofs and sidewalks, bouncing high into the air.
Lightning struck with strobe-like frequency. Thunder pounded the air, but was almost drowned out by the hail. Classes were dismissed because students couldn’t hear the teachers.
Two young boys got the brilliant idea to go outside and have a “hail-ball fight” …and were badly injured. People outside ran for cover, covering their heads with their fingers, and many of their fingers were broken. Three people were knocked unconscious. The golf ball-sized hail became baseball-sized and even grapefruit-sized. All 113 skylights of Socorro’s new Wal-Mart imploded, as did almost every skylight and window and windshield in town.
Over 1,700 of Socorro’s cars were totaled that day. The hail — traveling at around 100 M.P.H. — bashed off rearview mirrors, smashed clear through plastic car bodies, and hurtled right through hoods and into engines. Even some cars inside carports were damaged, when hail tore through the roofs above them.
“It was like being in a war,” said Socorro resident Laurie Borden.
The clay tile roofs of Socorro’s older buildings exploded down in broken cascades, leaves and branches tumbled from trees, hailstones punched holes through prickly pear cacti, and people worried for their families and pets.
More than one person spent at least part of the storm trapped inside a car. NMT geology student Dawn Sweeney was in hers in a parking lot when the hail began, and initially decided to wait out the storm there. Then her car’s back window broke, the windshield buckled inward, and Sweeney was forced to make an excruciating run to safety through the worst of the hail.
The storm was actually part of an eastbound tornado that had touched down on the other side of the nearby Interstate 25, a tornado that had allowed the hailstones to stay aloft long enough to collect unusually dangerous amounts of ice.
The storm went on for forty-five relentless minutes of varying intensity, and then finally subsided, leaving up to a foot of hailstones covering the ground, along with heaps of broken glass, a wasteland of limbs and branches, and the smell of fresh-cut pine filling the air.
“People emerged tentatively from various campus buildings, almost reverent in the aftermath of such an awesome display of nature,” said Dave Wheelock, NMT’s Rugby Director.
Some people cried. Others laughed. One man sat dazed, blood trickling from his head, waiting for an ambulance. Then it rained again.
For days afterward, Socorro was quieter than usual, because most of the area’s birds and wildlife had been killed. Approximately $30 million worth of property damages were eventually reported, Governor Bill Richardson declared the entire county a disaster area, and many of the town’s hail-damaged vehicles suddenly sported a new bumper sticker: “THIS CAR SURVIVED! THE SOCORRO HAIL STORM. OCTOBER 2004.”