First life lost to tornado in Clovis history

Little remains of a trailer home in South Clovis that belonged to Heleneta Blevins. Blevins died in her son’s home on Sunday after sustaining injuries during Friday’s storm. (CNJ staff photo: Marlena Hartz)

By Marlena Hartz: CNJ staff writer

Heleneta Blevins died the way she lived — surrounded by what she held most dear, her family.

The 90-year-old Clovis resident passed away in her eldest son’s home around 5 a.m. Tuesday, according to family members who removed her from a Clovis hospital so she could be near family and friends in her last moments.

Her death marks the first tornado fatality in Clovis’ 100-year history, according to Clovis News Journal archives and www.tornadoproject.com.

“We knew she was going,” said her eldest son, Bob Blevins.

“We gathered around … just to have her close,” he said.

A hospice provided services for the family, he said.

“The atmosphere was peaceful,” said Bob’s wife, Lydia Blevins. “We sat around and told stories about her.”

Heleneta was born in 1916 in Eureka, Kan. She came to Clovis with her husband, who found a job with the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway. She worked as a telephone operator and baby sat for a while. However, she spent most of her life as a homemaker.

“You always saw her with an apron on,” Lydia Blevins said.

“She was from the old school. She believed in staying home and taking care of her family.”

Heleneta’s only daughter and first born, Betty Denton, had her last conversation with her mother about a week ago. She stopped by the trailer where Heleneta lived alone, and the pair chatted about the family. Heleneta wanted to know everyone was OK, Denton said. Then, the soap opera Heleneta watched every weekday came on, and her daughter left.

The tornado that ripped through Clovis on Friday sucked Heleneta and her youngest son, Jim, into the air, the son said. They were dumped yards away from Heleneta’s trailer, which was tucked behind Jim’s home on South Prince Street.

A labyrinth of rubble remains there.

Her son’s home still stands, but her trailer was in a thousand pieces Tuesday afternoon. Its walls, stripped bare, were embedded in two trees. Tufts of yellow insulation covered the grass. The door of a chain-link fence that wrapped around the trailer was the only tangible remnant of the inviting home Heleneta once kept.

“Even at 90, when you walked into her door, she said, ‘What can I get you?’ She always had soda in her fridge. She made awesome macaroni and cheese and strawberry pie,” recalled her granddaughter Shannon Pettigrew.

By Tuesday evening, the trailer walls had been unwrapped from the trees and reminders of what happened there were slowly disappearing.

The last recorded death from a tornado in New Mexico was in 1974 in Valencia County, according to the Albuquerque National Weather Service.

The night the tornado hit Clovis, Jim Blevins had no idea it was racing toward his neighborhood.

He left his home to check on his mother, as he often did.

Heleneta was stubborn, her family said, and insisted on living on her own. Her health was good, though time had slowed her down. She used her cane sporadically and wanted to drive a Jeep, though she gave up driving about a year ago. Jim Blevins said it made him feel better she was so close.

As he walked to his mother’s trailer that night, hail began to fall so hard it burned his ears. Then, it quit and there was silence, Jim said.

“I knew then it was bad,” said Jim, who hid himself and mother inside a closet.

He heard an explosion and was pummeled by debris. His glasses were thrown from his face and wounds covered his body. That didn’t stop him from looking for his mother.

He found her in a field yards away.

Her trailer was one of about 75 homes and business destroyed in the storm. About 500 structures were damaged.

About 35 people were injured in the storm. One Clovis man, Walter Cravy, also 90, remained in critical condition in a Lubbock hospital Tuesday.

Reese Blevins remembers this about his grandmother: He snuck sugar from her kitchen to sprinkle on his Cap’n Crunch cereal.

“I thought she would get mad. But once she saw me do it, and said, ‘You eat it like you want to,” Reese said.

Hemorrhaging in Heleneta’s brain from a head trauma left little hope, family said.
The storm left Jim Blevins with broken ribs, bruising and cuts. As bulldozers cleared debris from his back yard Tuesday, he remembered his mother.

“She was just the sweetest person,” he said.

Others thought so, too.

She carried a purse full of candy for her nine grandchildren and 21 great-grandchildren, Pettigrew said. She brought pillows for her grandchildren on road trips, Lydia Blevins said. She never stopped cooking for her family. She fed her daschund dog, Heidi, cereal and pizza, Jim Blevins said.

On Tuesday, Heidi was tied to a tree in Jim’s back yard as TV crews rushed around, people carted away armloads of splintered lumber, and bulldozers pushed around rubble.

Family said the dog’s behavior has been strange since the tornado. They aren’t sure yet who will care for her.

She looked lost. The trailer she lived in and the woman who loved her are gone.