DATE OF EVENT: Monday, May 20, 1957
DATE PUBLISHED: Tuesday, May 21, 1957, in The Kansas City Times
Editor’s note: The 1951 Ruskin Heights tornado took only 15 minutes to kill dozens of people and to damage hundreds of homes. It stayed on the ground for 71 miles, eventually taking 41 lives and injuring 531 persons — far more than this breaking news story reported.
The tornado was the deadliest in Kansas City area history, and was the first to eclipse the Lathrop School tornado of 1886.
At least 31 persons were reported killed, at least 200 persons were injured and many were made homeless by a tornado which struck the southern part of the metropolitan area shortly after 7 o’clock last night.
Damage was expected to run into many thousands of dollars as the tornado funnels cut a swath northeastward through Spring Hill, Martin City, Grandview, Ruskin Heights, Hickman Mills and part of Raytown.
Everywhere there were scenes of jumbled debris, death and chaos as rescue workers struggled in the darkness to rescue the injured and maintain some semblance of emergency aid.
The heaviest part of the damage appeared to be centered in the Ruskin Heights-Hickman Mills area. Interrupted communications hampered Red Cross disaster units in determining the extent of the damage.
Gov. James T. Blair, jr., ordered martial law in the Hickman Mills-Ruskin Heights-Martin City-Grandview area, and ordered the 100th engineers of the National Guard mobilized to help in the rescue and cleanup operations. …
Observers at the disaster scene in Ruskin Heights said there could be no count of the number killed, missing or injured until daylight. Rescue workers had only flashlights and motor car lights to search through the wreckage. With roads blocked with debris and motor cars, workers were doing well to get ambulances out of the disaster area.
In an early estimate Sheriff Arvid Owsley said about four square miles had been affected.
About 10:30 o’clock a blaze broke out in the wrecked Ben Franklin store in the Ruskin Heights shopping center. It was under control immediately.
“We’ll find the survivors in the daylight,” said John Coyne, a deputy coroner. “If they started running, they’ll be scattered away from the homes area.”
The dead included:
Eight victims who had been taken from the disaster area to the base hospital at Richards-Gebaur Air Force base.
Three dead at Hickman Mills fire department No. 1.
Three dead at the Russell Franks chapel in Hickman Mills.
Four in the Isham Davis family killed at Spring Hill.
Three dead at the Wornall funeral home.
Seven dead at hospitals here.
Two dead at the Langsford funeral home in Lee’s Summit.
One dead at Martin City…
General confusion and darkness led rescue workers to express fear that many more dead may be discovered in the wreckage and debris of houses and public buildings. An estimated 12,000 persons live in the devastated area.
The bodies of two persons, identified as Mr. and Mrs. Henry Gabert, were found in a field behind a wrecked house about a block south of Bannister and Raytown roads, near Lee’s Summit. The bodies were taken to the Langsford funeral home.
Glenn Rapp, director of the American Red Cross disaster unit in Jackson County, said hospitals in the metropolitan area had reported more than 200 injured, and efforts were being made to compile the names as rapidly as possible. …
The tornado first struck about 7:15 o’clock at Spring Hill in Johnson County. For the next 45 minutes it moved in a northeasterly direction into Jackson County and then east of the city.
The Ruskin Heights shopping center of 15 stores at One Hundred Tenth street was demolished, the Ruskin high school was badly damaged, the Ruskin Heights Presbyterian church was destroyed and residences were crumpled.
Witnesses told of cowering in what shelter they could find as the winds ripped away houses and buildings. Cars were piled in tangled masses of metal in streets, in parking lots and in used car lots. …