June 9, 1953

Tornado Devastates Worcester

PRIMARY SOURCE: Newspaper, 1953
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On this day in 1953, Worcester County was devastated by the strongest tornado ever to hit New England. With winds close to 300 mph, the twister traveled 46 miles across the county, reaching its peak intensity in Worcester. Cinderblock and brick buildings were picked up and smashed to rubble. Ponds were sucked dry. A 12-ton bus flew through the air. The storm left 94 dead, 1,288 injured, 15,000 homeless and over $53,000,000 in property damage. When survivors emerged from the wreckage, they viewed destruction so complete that many thought it was either a nuclear explosion or the apocalypse. Fifty years later one survivor recalled, "We thought the world was coming to an end. And when we saw what had happened, we were sure it had."

Winds estimated at 317 to 327 mph scoured the paint off cars, plucked chickens clean, and sucked the clothing — even the shoes — off anyone unfortunate enough to be its path.

In June of 2003, on the 50th anniversary of the Worcester tornado, survivors shared memories of the traumatic event. Some, like 91-year-old Marion Schold of Shrewsbury, were reaching the age when some memories begin to fade. "I find it harder to remember some things," she confessed, "but this you do not forget... Everyone was affected by it; ask anyone in town. It's like everyone knowing where they were when Kennedy was shot."

John O'Toole, a Worcester native who turned eyewitness accounts into a book, calls the twister "unparalleled in New England annals... It may possibly be the highest natural winds ever," and certainly the most powerful ever to strike New England. Winds estimated at 317 to 327 mph scoured the paint off cars, plucked chickens clean, and sucked the clothing — even the shoes — off anyone unfortunate enough to be its path.

The twister first touched down in Petersham at 4:20 pm; over the next 84 minutes, it cut a path of destruction 40 yards wide through Barre, Rutland, Holden, Worcester, and Shrewsbury before breaking into two smaller funnels.

Survivors remembered that in the minutes before it struck — with no warning — there was hail as big as potatoes and grapefruit. Some recalled a sudden weighted feeling, a heaviness that made it hard to move or breathe.

"That vision, it will never leave me," said Audrey Doyle-Richardson. "A huge black funnel with incredible white sky on both sides."

Though it was still three hours before sunset, gloom as dark as night settled on the area. People looking to the northwest saw an awful sight the memory of which unnerves them whenever storm clouds gather. "That vision, it will never leave me," said Audrey Doyle-Richardson. "A huge black funnel with incredible white sky on both sides." Those who had seen the darkening sky expected a ferocious thunderstorm. Instead, they suddenly heard a sound like an approaching freight train, a roar that drowned out last-minute cries to take shelter.

Although tornadoes were rare in New England, taking shelter was something that Americans in 1953 were well-trained to do. With the Cold War escalating and U.S. troops fighting in Korea, schoolchildren learned to "duck and cover" during air raid drills, and citizens were urged to know how to find the nearest shelters. People in the path of the tornado ran for their basements; if their houses had no basement, they crouched behind stairwells, in interior bathrooms or closets, or turned over sofas and crawled underneath them.

People witnessed terrifying sights — windows and doors exploded, rooms full of furniture, even sofas and pianos, were sucked out into the maelstrom. Huge trees, cars, and even roofs flew past. Houses were reduced to splinters of wood and swept away. Some who saw the black funnel approach thought it was being circled by birds, until they realized that the "birds" were pieces of debris — lumber, trees, livestock, furniture — whirling around the funnel. There were reports of telephone poles flying through the air like missiles and piercing buildings, giant 200-year-old trees uprooted and rolling down the street, and manhole covers whirling past.

One remembered that "perfectly sane adults were running around saying the Russians had attacked, or that this was the end of the world."

The tornado was at its peak when it hit the north side of Worcester, then a city of 200,000. (The south side was left almost untouched.) The twister picked up a 12-ton bus, carried it airborne for 40 feet, then smashed it into an apartment building. At the Norton Company, the city's largest employer, the roof was torn off a new $6,000,000 factory building and heavy machinery was tossed about like toys. Fortunately, most employees had finished their shift just hours before. At Assumption College, buildings were leveled and several priests and nuns were killed; classes had just ended for the summer; so there were few other casualties on the campus.

The worst devastation occurred in the newer sections of Worcester and surrounding suburbs. The rush to build housing after the war had produced entire neighborhoods where the houses were built on slabs without basements. Photographs show whole streets swept clean, with only slabs and scattered debris left.

At first some survivors thought they had experienced a nuclear blast — the landscape looked frighteningly like photographs of Hiroshima after the bomb was dropped — or the apocalypse. One remembered that "perfectly sane adults were running around saying the Russians had attacked, or that this was the end of the world." Veterans of WWII felt as if they were back in a combat zone.

"It's with me every time the sky gets dark… That whole day, everything comes back."

As soon as the winds abated, residents began to organize themselves into rescue teams. The able-bodied uncovered the injured and carried them on stretchers made from doors or ironing boards. They were taken to any car that was still functioning; with the streets choked with debris, volunteers drove to hospitals through back yards and gardens. Others tried to contain the fires that had broken out when downed power lines and open gas jets ignited. Soon the National Guard, Civil Defense workers, and police, firemen, and doctors and nurses from surrounding towns poured in to help.

Fifty years later, there are still some physical reminders of the historic twister. On Maplewood St. in Shrewsbury, where winds knocked houses off center, wallpaper won't stay up, so people paint. In Westborough, farmer Jim Harvey still finds objects in his fields that were embedded during the storm. But the most lasting scars are in the memories of the survivors. Janet Harvey explained, "It's with me every time the sky gets dark… That whole day, everything comes back."

Thus it was not surprising that objections were raised when in the spring of 2005 a new minor league baseball team was named "The Worcester Tornadoes." John O'Toole told the Boston Globe that he believes the choice is "inappropriate because it was a disaster. There are no happy memories. There's not one pleasant, light moment . . . What do you want to honor in a black funnel cloud?" The team's general manager defended the choice: ''The name was conceived with great respect for not only everyone who suffered through the tragedy, for those who lost loved ones, but for the way the community has grown . . . and prospered since."

Location

This Mass Moment occurred in the Central region of Massachusetts.

Sources

Boston Globe, "Deadly '53 Tornado Still Stirs Memories," by Peter Schworm, June 5, 2000; "Memories, Nightmares of '53 Twister Still Sharp" by Peter Schworm, June 9, 2003; and "New Team's Nickname Riles Some in Worcester," by Scott Goldstein, March 11, 2005.

Tornado in New England, by Marvin Richmond (a 20-minute newsreel documenting the tornado's aftermath).

Tornado! 84 Minutes, 94 Lives: The Eyewitness Story of the Tornado with the Highest Winds Ever Recorded, by John M. O'Toole (Databooks, 1993).

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