Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Ruskin Heights Tornado: 57 years and counting

First, an excellent FAQ on tornado safety and history

A News Film taken shortly after. The funnel shown is NOT the Ruskin Tornado. File footage. But the rest is.

4/28/2011 I watched in awe and horror the videos of the storms that hit so many places yesterday in the south... and those from Tuscaloosa over and over. I've never seen another that looked so much like the one I remember... it's size, the moments when the sun would light one side of it, the lightning that illuminated the center of the funnel (I was told I'd imagined this... that this isn't something that happened). My heart goes out to those lost, and those left without precious objects of memory and identity.

New members of our society of lifelong cloud watchers.


51 years:
May 20, 1957. F5 Tornado, Kansas City, Missouri
Ruskin Heights.

Scroll down for photo of aftermath, links and credits to photos.

If you were there, you are encouraged to add your memories to the comments below. There are other first hand accounts HERE and HERE

On the afternoon of May 20, 1957 I remember walking South on 109th Street, beside me, a class mate and next door neighbor, Larry Perkins. The street ends at the end of the block. We are at the crest of a long ridge--the "Heights" of Ruskin Heights. Below us, the football field, gymnasium and auditorium and the long brick class room corridors of Ruskin High School. Even now, I don't have to close my eyes to see the sky. I can feel the heat, the humidity.

I was 15. We had moved to Kansas City from Chicago in 1952. In one of my earliest memories, I was huddling in a storm cellar in Norman, Oklahoma where my father was stationed during the war. Cradled in my mother's arms. Tornado.. The beginning of a life long fascination with storms.

I was a voracious reader, loved books on animals, on science, and had a head full of ideas about tornadoes and how they formed and the conditions that spawned them--not all of it accurate, I'm afraid--but at 15, who would know? It was the perfect weather for these classic spring storms. In fact, before dark, there would be 51 recorded touchdowns. The Ruskin Heights F5 would be the strongest. I spent much of the late afternoon and evening outside watching the sky. I wanted to see what the real thing looked like. Hoped I might catch a glimpse of a hook dipping down from the back wall of an approaching super cell, a writhing, serpentine tail of cloud. The radio had predicted the possibility of severe storms. I was ready and waiting.

Where did we go, Larry and I?

No memory at all. Perhaps to the strip mall--the one where so many were caught when the super market roof fell in on them. But that was hours later. My next recollections leap forward--well after 7:00. There's been a sighting somewhere near or past the Olathe Navel Air Base. Our neighbors to the north, the Settles--J.B, was a reserve flier. Cougar jets--so the Olathe sighting brought it home. When you hear a place name on the radio that you know, that has emotional resonance--you pay attention.

My parents had gone shopping--driven to Sears with my younger sister, Peggy. I was alone in the house. I put the radio in the doorway so I could hear it and went back and forth, from front yard to back, watching the darkening sky to the south and west. Reports put the funnel, now confirmed, on a path headed directly toward us. Southwest. From my reading, I assumed all tornadoes came from the southwest. Trace my finger on a map... we were at the center of the bullseye.

Find a place of shelter on the opposite side--so I had read. That would be our garage. I took the digging forks and garden implements from the wall and put them in a large wooden tool chest. Not good to have pitch forks flying through the air, I thought. Gathered several blankets and lay them against the southwest wall of the garage, ready to wrap myself in at the last moment. Flying glass, I'd read, was a danger.

I had a Kodak Brownie camera. It was already dark for taking pictures--a great column of cumulonimbus clouds blocked the sun; I grabbed a chair and left my camera there. At the last minute I might get a shot of this thing. Those old Brownies--to take a time exposure, you had to hold the shutter switch down by hand. The chair was to keep the camera steady.

Memory: standing in the back yard. The first sighting. Neighbors to the east--pointing to the south. Nothing. Then lighting strikes would illuminate the thing... nothing like I'd imagined. No little hook dipping down out a cloud. No serpentine tail.... something immense, vast. Black at the base. A skirt of debris thrown up. And as it came closer--dropping out of the cloud wall, the sun low in the sky shown against it--like white whipped cream!

It was beautiful... and all the more awesome for its beauty. Forget Mount Blanc--if you want the Romantic Sublime, there it was!

A swirling column... that as it grew closer-- you had to turn your head to see one side and then the other--a straightforward glance wouldn't take in the whole of it... too close... ran to the front of the house for my last-chance snapshot... held down the shutter--when around the corner, there was my parent's car--doors flung open at they approached--voices calling to jump in.

But our dog! Our little honey colored cocker spaniel, Kitty (my dad liked Gun Smoke... )... I ran in the house, my mother's voice screaming at me to hurry, grabbed the dog, jumped in the car on the run. The tornado, by now a monster above us, the sound of it--not like a freight train, as I'd read... but something that seemed to well up from the very earth, the deepest organ notes--I thought of a recording we had of Albert Schweitzer playing Bach. In the Book of Job, this would have been the little finger of God.

At the south end of the block, a park... where most of the wreckage would later be buried. "Turn at a right angle!" I cried... remembering what I'd read. But my father at the wheel heard, turn right.

Directly into the path of the storm.

Behind us... and I'm not sure of this part of my recollection, there were two more cars--all of us going full accelerator, peeling away to out-race this thing, and then we were showered with debris, a clattering against the roof and windows, the car shaking--speeding into absolute blackness... and then it began to clear.. and we could see again, and we slowed down.

Behind us... no more cars. We never knew what became of them.




For hours, my father and I wandered through the ruins, following calls for help from those caught beneath the debris. People wandered like living dead, studded with roofing nails, bleeding and dazed. The sound of water gurgling out of severed pipes, the sweet smell of natural gas. It was not easy to find our own street, our house... which fared better than the Perkins' next door: nothing left but the concrete slab. (I attributed this to my having left all doors and windows open... the myth/theory of the day, that the sudden drop in pressure contributed to the destructive power of the wind) . Behind our house, to the east--devastation as far as you could see.

I close my eyes... 51 years and counting. And I see the sky, that wall of cloud. I still have dreams. But they have grown strange. It comes again and again. It has taken my parents, taken friends, lovers.. those who never came close to that storm. And soon enough, I know... It will come again for me.
---

Carolyn Glenn Brewer's book on the Ruskin Heights tornado: Caught in the Path>
Scroll down for photos.

NOAA : meteorlogical data, maps, graphs. Scroll down for photgraphs of the tornado in formation, and post-storm damage.

41 comments:

  1. I shall never again refer to you as an old blow-hard.

    Nice piece. Did you see "twister"? Good film about tornadoes. That reminds me, I should add that to my film review list.

    "Run along now, before someone drops a house on you!"

    --Glenda, the good witch.

    ReplyDelete
  2. This was the occasion for my first published writing. Sent a letter describing the storm to a friend in Chicago. His father sent it to the Chicago Sun Times and they gave it a half page in the Sunday edition. Scott Foresman paid me $10 to use an edited version in a 5th grade reading workbook.

    Been downhill ever since...

    ReplyDelete
  3. Good writing!

    My family (five of us) survived the Ruskin Heights Tornado. I was born at St. Joseph's hospital five months before the tornado. We were living in a trailer at the time of the tornado. We were tossed around inside the trailer like confetti and then the tornado moved on leaving us alive and our trailer in good shape in spite of being shaken. The sides were stripped off by the wind. Everything in the house was destroyed and I slept through it all, though my crib was demolished--I had been rolled out onto the floor still wrapped in a blanket.

    My mother filled me in on the details years later. The story of that night always got her choked up tell it.

    Walter Abington

    ReplyDelete
  4. I believe that should be Olathe, not Olethe.

    ReplyDelete
  5. I was also an infant (9 months old) when the tornado ripped through Ruskin Heights. We were a family of 4 kids. We were fortunate enough to have a basement and from what my mother told me was that we had a ton of people in our basement.
    It devasted the entire house and neighborhood.
    My mom has never been the same when it comes to storms. After that tornado, anytime there was a storm we always had to go to the basement.
    Mary Chase

    ReplyDelete
  6. My response is the opposite... I want to be out where I can see the sky to know what is coming.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Fascinating posts; I was with my parents on the highway when my dad spotted the tornado to his right and stopped the car...it came right through where Raytown South now stands and moved on to the northeast where it dissapated shortly thereafter.

    Jim Christensen

    ReplyDelete
  8. I was 4 years old and living just three blocks north of the path where it plowed through Ruskin Heights. My mother and younger sister, our little dog and I sheltered in our garage because it was too late to get to the basement in the house across the street. I can still hear it. In my recurring childhood nightmare, I could look up at the cloud and see it, lighting flashing in the vortex. 44 people died. I grew up hearing my classmates' survival stories and the tales of those who did not make it. Every time the sky goes green the nerves come. We survive, but do we ever get over it?
    Debra Wheeler

    ReplyDelete
  9. Just stumbled on this for no known reason, but today marks 52 years! I was 7, and when it was over my whole family piled in our car driving from Prairie Village to Ruskin Heights to see the damage. It was unbelievable...and scary.

    ReplyDelete
  10. You're right, it was 52 years...

    ReplyDelete
  11. Jacob, thank you for this web site.

    The Ruskin Heights Tornado is a lasting memory for any Baby Boomer who grew up in KC, whether you were actually in Ruskin Heights or even whether you were old enough to remember the night.

    I was almost 5 and living near Meyer and Oak in KC when the Ruskin Heights tornado hit. We must have had a lot of hail from the storm because I remember a day or so later, when another outbreak of tornados hit and we went down to the basement, I was terrified of the small piece of hail my mother picked up from the basement's window well. I was sure tornados came from those little pieces of hail!

    One of the signs of not being a little kid in KC was when Mom and Dad no longer made you go to the basement when the clouds turned dark and the sky turned green, but let you stay outside and watch the majesty in the sky. You were finally old enough to run down the basement stairs to safety without falling.

    ReplyDelete
  12. Sharon McKenzie CookeApril 6, 2010 at 2:09 AM

    My family and I had lived at 113th & Corrington when the tornado hit that night. I was nine years old,my sister was six and my brother was 9 months. We lived in a Ruskin house that had no basement. I was playing outside enjoying the sunshine when the air seemed to turn a greenish hue right before my eyes. Next my parents came outside as did alot of neighbors to see what the sky looked like. My parents had called a church member and asked to come to their house. It had a basement. They said sure. By the time my parents got us all piled into the car and some of my mother's prized posessions it was to late to drive to our friends house. We were still in the process of building our church and only had the basement done. This was the Blue Ridge Baptist Temple on 102 nd & Blue Ridge. We decided to drive straight down Blue Ridge to the church basement. We were terrified. I remember that I turned very slowly to look out the back window of my Dad's car. What I saw was a wide swath of black. My Father sped down Blue Ridge to the church. There were other church members that had the same idea. I remember my dad trying to get me out of the back seat in a two door car. I had some of my mother's prized possesions in a box and I was stuck. My dad bent the box to allow me to get out and we ran into the church basement.

    ReplyDelete
  13. And when you came up from the basement? How close had it come? What happened to your house?

    ReplyDelete
  14. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    ReplyDelete
  15. I was a sophomore in high school (Lee's Summit Senior High). I remember standing in our backyard in Lee's Summit looking toward the west watching the funnel move across the horizon. Dad said, "It's hitting Ruskin or Grandview." He worked at Bendix and had many colleagues who lived in Ruskin Heights. Ruskin High School's '57 senior class held their graduation exercises in Lee's Summit HS's gym. I also remember the picture of Ruskin High School in then-Prom Magazine. After the tornado, the only letters remaining on the school were R U I N . .
    . such irony . . . such tragedy!

    ReplyDelete
  16. I was a sophomore too. Thank you for your comment, and for adding to the roll of memories posted here.

    ReplyDelete
  17. Thelma Ann Limbaugh (Hicks)May 20, 2010 at 9:02 PM

    My family and I were at downtown when the TORNADO HIT!!! We did not know if our house was gone. We had a very hard time getting back home, because of all the traffic and sightseers. Our house was fine but we had a lot of dubree in our yard. I still remember that day as if it were NOW!!!

    ReplyDelete
  18. Thanks for your story! Your recollection of 'the sound' helped me regain my memory of it. I won't repeat my post from the link you have here. I am amazed at your presence of mind-to prepare AND did you ever get that picture? The close call of turning right...instead of left...or keeping straight, I enjoyed your post!

    ReplyDelete
  19. My family and I lived in Hickman Mills. The tornado leveled our neighborhood of Lawndale-Oakley-Drury streets. The tornado killed my 4 month old sister Linda Stewart and left my mother and I for dead. I was severley injured,and arrived DOA at St.Jospeph's Hospital. A brilliant doctor named Dr, Cooper and an incredible nursing staff saved my life. I spent months in the hospital. I was 4 years old, and I remember this event like it just happened. In 2007, at the 50th memorial service, we formed a special group of survivors, we were all kids in '57, called the Lawndale-Oakley-Drury Gang. We are all very close now,living in different states. We had a silent prayer this evening at 7:40PM CST Many heroes and much sadness this date.

    ReplyDelete
  20. The 2nd link above sends you to part of another blog that started this topic....but I don't want you to miss the other parts, for instance the video taken the day after the tornado.
    So much sadness, yet so much binding and closeness resulting from this ordeal we weathered together...and how our parents rebuilt in the same place.
    Thanks Jacob for giving us another place to remember and listen and learn.

    ReplyDelete
  21. I was not quite three years old that evening, but I remember very vividly the events I experienced.

    I was with my family at a restaurant/bowling alley in Lee's Summit. My parents were in the bowling alley section with friends, leaving me in a booth in the restaurant where I was very happy to be left alone to color in my new coloring book.

    I do not remember interacting with my three siblings that evening but I believe they were there, too.

    I remember that I was coloring a pull-page drawing of a monarch butterfly when I heard a deafening banging on the roof of the building and the adults around me began to act very strangely.

    Since I continued to sit very quietly in the booth and was by myself, no one paid any attention to me.

    I recall men rushing out to their trucks and hauling bales of hay or straw and piling them up against the plate glass windows of the building. There was lots of noise, both from the men yelling at one another as they were piling up the bales and from the rain and hail.

    I did not know what hail was at that time so I was terrified by both the sounds coming from the roof and by the behavior of the men. I did not understand what was causing the noise (hail) or what was causing the men to behave the way they were. I don't think I had any understanding of the word tornado.

    I do not remember my parents paying any attention to me while this was going on. I did not feel afraid because I was alone in that booth; I was afraid because I could not understand the cause of noise and the behavior I observed.

    Several years later, when I was six and a half years old, my family moved to Kansas City, to an area that originally was Hickman Mills. I later met people who had lived in Ruskin Heights and survived the tornado. I also went to Ruskin High School.

    Many years later another memory of that evening came to me. I was in my late thirties when I remembered what I was wearing - it was a short-sleeved red dress with a peter pan collar.

    I have never liked the color red. I remember refusing to wear a red shirt when I was in first grade while staying with my grandmother. She had picked out an outfit for me to wear that included a red knit top. I had often thought about why I did not like red. Somehow it came to me - I was wearing a red dress that night. This might sound crazy, but it makes sense to me. I also don't like bowling. I think the first time I went to a bowling alley on my own was in high school because friends wanted to go. I have only bowled that one time.

    Even though I live in New Mexico now, where tornadoes are rare, I have a house with a basement.

    ReplyDelete
  22. You have a remarkably precise memory... with little sign of later translation. Such accurate recollections of early childhood are rare.

    ReplyDelete
  23. Judee Schumacher PronovostJune 20, 2010 at 4:36 PM

    Thanks for all these memories. I was seven years old when the tornado hit, and we lived behind the park on 108th Terrace. My dad was outside watching the skies after we heard the first bulletin. After that, bulletins interrupted our viewing every few minutes of I LOVE LUCY.

    Eventually, Dad took my mom, my 5-year old bother and me down to our neighbour's basement where we joined with many others from our block. Meanwhile, Dad went back to open up the SW and NE windows of the house so that there would not be a vacuum inside, turned off the gas, then stopped and brought our next door neighbours down. He decided to have one last look at the big black mass coming toward us, so he walked along the side of the house to the backyard fence and saw the High School gymnasium implode. About that time, he was feeling the wind pushing him toward the tornado, so he struggled back to the front of the garage (the basement stairs were in the back of the garage), rounded the corner, was sucked toward the back, and threw himself down the stairs. He had to beat on the door and yell before people opened the door and let him inside. They thought the noise he was making was part of the tornado.

    My mom lay on top of my brother and me saying her prayers. I remember the sound of the wind, the sound of small rocks hitting the house and that sound growing louder and louder as the rocks and other things got bigger. Someone said it would sound like a freight train, but I remember thinking it didn't sound like that to me. I felt as if I were gasping for breath as it pounded and thundered overhead. Then the sound gradually died away and there was silence.

    We stayed down in the basement for quite a while. People lit up cigarettes, and later the grownups remarked we were lucky there wasn't a gas leak anywhere close. The men went out and brought back people who were injured. Our neighbour across the street tore up her slip, helping to bandage people's wounds. Eventually we left, climbed over the debris on the stairs, and looked up to see that the house had no roof. We made our way home, three houses west, careful not to step on any live wires, and found it still standing, although our windows were blown out. Furniture in the house was moved around, there was glass on the floors and everywhere. The strawberries my mom had bought a few hours before from someone selling them door-to-door were peppered with glass slivers in the sink where she had been washing them before we went to the basement. Dad opened the garage and we piled into the '55 Buick, heading for his sister's house across town. It took a long time to get past the fire station on Blue Ridge Road. People were coming in to see the damage while we were trying to get out. Men bounced cars off the road so that survivors could get through the traffic jam. I think I remember a reporter outside our car window asking people to describe what had happened.

    ReplyDelete
  24. Judee Schumacher PronovostJune 20, 2010 at 4:36 PM

    Here's more that wouldn't fit:
    We kids didn't go home for three days, but my parents were there every day cleaning up. Someone who was a relative of a relative gave my dad a movie camera, and I remember we walked around filming. I'd give anything to see that footage again, but I have no idea whose camera it was or what happened to the film. People put signs on their houses, using titles of popular songs of the day -- "I'm All Shook Up." I remember that one best.

    After the tornado the park became the dumping ground for all the debris and there was a fire in the pit that was dug there that lasted for months. The laundry mom would hang outside would sometimes come in dry and smelling foul.

    I found my grammar school best friend thanks to Carolyn Brewer's book CAUGHT IN THE PATH. I hadn't seen her since 1962 when our family moved to California. We were reunited at the Ruskin Tornado 50th Anniversary, and still write back and forth about that fateful day. She lost her house and was probably more traumatised than I was. I'm still scared of storms when I go back to the midwest. I make sure basements are nearby if the sky looks dark. But I'd rather risk another tornado than an earthquake because at least one can take cover for a tornado while an earthquake just happens and destroys larger areas.

    ReplyDelete
  25. Thank you, Judee for your vivid, beautifully detailed remembrance.

    ReplyDelete
  26. Judee Schumacher PronovostJune 20, 2010 at 5:16 PM

    Thanks back, Jacob! My dad was alive to go with us to the 50th anniversary, but he passed away just over a year ago. My mom died three years before he did. Now it's just us kids left with our memories. I'm so glad you have given us a place to store them all up! I sent a link to my friend. I hope she writes her memories here for you.

    ReplyDelete
  27. I looked up this tornado because we just had the 2011 Joplin tornado last night. I remember the 1957 tornado very well. I was only 8 years old but I remember how big it was and how dark it got. We lived in Raytown and even though the tornado was in Ruskin Heights, it looked like it was in Raytown because it was so big. It was so awsome. I thought it was the largest tornado in history but now they are saying the Joplin one is.

    ReplyDelete
  28. I think they were of comparable size, but almost all of the Joplin tornado was densely populated. The Ruskin tornado was on the ground much longer--more than 70 miles, but fortunately much of that was open and more sparsely built up. We've seen two f4 or 5 tornadoes this year hit urban areas--Joplin and Tuscaloosa. This has been a very active season.
    Thanks for your comment, Nancy.

    ReplyDelete
  29. I was nine in a home for boys and the nuns ran us to the basement and the next day we got in an old station wagon(a woodiewaggon) and drove thru the terrable destruction. the police were turning most of the cars away but they let the nuns thru. i will never forget. every year the storms bring back the sad memories.Frank

    ReplyDelete
  30. I was 12 years old on May 20th 1957. My parents, my 10 year old brother and I were attending the Kindergarten graduation for my 5 year old sister at the Martin City Elementary School. I remember looking out the west door of the gymnasium with a lot of other people and seeing a funnel cloud that looked like it was standing still but growing larger and larger. It was headed right for us! There was no basement and nowhere to go but the long hallway of the school. We got down on our knees and covered our heads with our hands. I was repeating the Lord's Prayer over and over as that hideous tornado came right for us. It skirted past the south door, darkening the hallway where we were huddled, removing a few bricks as it went down into town, leaving us all unhurt.
    Daddy took us to our Grandma's house in Kenneth, Kansas, about 3 miles away. There my little sister and I huddled together in the soft feather bed mattress of my Great Grandmother's bed until we finally slept.
    When we were allowed to go back to our home we found some of it still standing and a very large tree was coming through the west wall of our dining room. Months later as we were packing to go on vacation we found shards and slivers of glass inside our closed suitcases which were stored inside a closet.
    Martin City had 2 deaths from that storm. I like to think my prayers had something to do with saving all of us in the school that day. Or maybe because my name is Glenda (the good witch).

    ReplyDelete
  31. Thank you for your comment, Glenda. You last thought made me smile. Glenda is good name if you live in Kansas... or Oz!

    ReplyDelete
  32. I was 5 on that horrible night. My Dad worked the night shift at Bendix, so my Mother decided to take my Brother and me to the drive in theater at Hickman Mills. The anouncement came over the loud speaker that the tornado was coming directly towrds us. I remember screaming and crying, We lived in Grandview so my Mom decided to head home. Obviously we made it, but I remember looking out the back window and being fasinated as we drove away from it. We did have a basement and everytime we had warnings my Mom had to drag me from the back yard because I wanted to see everything. Susan Trester O'Donnell

    ReplyDelete
  33. Enjoyed reading the post's. I was 5 when the "Beast" hit KC. My Dad worked the 3 to midnight shift at Bendix so Mom decided to take my older Brother and me to Crest drive in, in Hickman Mills. We were all settled when all of a sudden they announced we were in the direct path. I remember my Mom threw the speaker out and started the car and I remember being more affraid of her driving than the tornado itself. She got on 71 and sped up even more. I remember turning around and seeing the massive black swirling wind.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I can publish or delete. But I can't edit comments. You'll have to repost--and I can delete the old one.

      Being in a car, if it catches you, is almost sure death. We made our escape in a care, too--and almost got caught.

      Delete
  34. I too lived on 109th street at 7317. I was 4 1/2 years old but have pretty vivid memories of the night it hit. Sounds like you knew some of the neighbors that my folks hung out with like Helen and JB Settle. Great piece.

    Rick Davis

    ReplyDelete
  35. The Settle's were next door neighbors--played bridge with my parents several nights a week. Sharon Boes was a friend of my younger sister, Peggy, who we lost to cancer three years ago. .

    ReplyDelete
  36. I lived between the Billings and the Bowes, Sharon and Tammy. My folks were Roger and Anita Davis and I remember them getting together with the Settles, the Bowes and the Griswalds to play bridge or pinochle.

    ReplyDelete
  37. We had just moved to KC. We lived on Flora Avenue. The day seemed unusually quiet, and dark. I wondered what was going on, when suddenly the radio went wild: Don't come to the disaster area----Don't come to the disaster area! What followed was the usual media coverage of an extraordinary event.

    ReplyDelete
  38. I remember that day. We had not lived very long in Kansas City. We lived on Flora Avenue. That afternoon the weather became strangely dark and STILL. l wondered what was going on. When all of a sudden, the radio went wiLD. DON'T COME TO THE DISASTER AREA. DON'T COME TO THE DISASTER AREA! That's how we learned of the enormous tragedy.

    ReplyDelete
  39. Thanks for your memory--how old were you then?

    ReplyDelete