Thursday, May 26, 2011

The Worcester Tornado, June 9, 1953

A young Senator John F. Kennedy and two teens
tour the tornado disaster in
Shrewsbury, Massachusetts 1953
News and photographs of the Joplin, Missouri tornado are filling the airways and newspapers this week. As the death toll mounted, the news reporters began to compare the storm to the Worcester Tornado over sixty years ago. This brought chills up my spine, and my skin began to crawl…

When I was growing up in Central Massachusetts, the adults would speak in hushed tones about the Worcester tornado. We moved to Holden in 1969, more than 15 years after the tornado, but the effects were very visible. The area was heavily forested, but the tornado’s path was still empty and barren of trees. I could follow the path through Holden into the nearby city of Worcester by seeing the lack of woodlands as we drove into the city for shopping or doctor’s appointments. My parents would casually mention that certain landmarks were “due to the tornado.”

Several neighbors had survived the tornado’s devastation. The young mother who lived next door had three toddlers, and would come to hide in our cellar whenever there were thunderstorm warnings. My mom would bring out boxes of Ritz crackers and peanut butter, and my sister and I would entertain the babies whenever storms passed over. At the time I didn’t understand her fear. She was just a small child herself when her home was destroyed in the Burncoat neighborhood of Worcester.

I would overhear women telling of how their children were injured in the storm, including a boy who was sucked out a living room window. Men would tell my Dad how belongings were found miles away, and miraculously returned. As a child I had visions of Dorothy and Toto’s flying house racing through my mind whenever we had severe storm warnings. It all seemed like fairy stories, too terrible to believe.

In my hometown of Holden, nine were killed, and then the tornado moved through Worcester, where another sixty residents died. A total of 94 people died, 1288 were injured and 10,000 were homeless. This was a staggering loss for the time, with a loss of 4,000 buildings and hundreds of automobiles. The damage was estimated at $53 million dollars in 1953. Debris was later found in the Atlantic Ocean off of Weymouth, Massachusetts- over 50 miles away. Worcester is a thousand miles away from tornado alley, but it was still a victim.  It held the unfortunate record of most destructive tornado for over 60 years, until this month when Joplin was hit.

When I was much older I saw the photographs of the tornado damage, and there were annual TV news reports on the storm’s anniversary. Not too long ago my daughter applied to Assumption College in Worcester. I took her to the main office for her entrance interview and spent my time perusing a display about the tornado. I didn’t know the campus was originally on Burncoat Street in Worcester. I didn’t know that the original campus was destroyed.  Later in 1953 Miss Jacqueline Bouvier, fiancĂ©e of Senator John F. Kennedy, presented a $150,000 gift from the Kennedy Foundation towards rebuilding a new campus on Salisbury Street. A priest and two nuns died in the storm, but no students died since summer break had just begun.

Today, the storm damage is barely visible. The great empty fields near the Great Brook Valley housing development are now covered with mature trees and new industrial buildings. There are no more vacant lots, since they have long been rebuilt with new homes or businesses. The earth has healed. I know that for now the people in Missouri will think that peace of mind is a fairy tale, but their pain will also fade and become barely visible. Barely… because I know at least one woman in Holden who still hides in the cellar when the thunderstorms pass through.

[The above photo is from MSNBC.com, at this link you can read about the Worcester tornado and also see a rare "before and after" color film of the Burncoat Street neighborhood http://photoblog.msnbc.msn.com/_news/2011/05/23/6700671-pictures-of-the-1953-worcester-massachusetts-tornado ]

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Copyright 2011, Heather Wilkinson Rojo

4 comments:

  1. I know people still talk about this storm, and more recently, on facebook. At that time, I was living in Conn., but moved to MA 8 months after the storm. Soon after, my parents took us to Worcester, and at age 10, it made a big impression on me. Very nice article. (Also watched the video.)

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  2. Great article. I knew nothing about this. Now living in the Midwest (born a New Englander) I have a new appreciation for the power of tornadoes.

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  3. Its really sad that tornado has destroyed all the lively buildings. I think it will take a lot time for renovation.

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  4. it was a strong tornado

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