Doomsday KC

‘The monster’ roared: Tornado carved a deadly path

By RICK MONTGOMERY

The Kansas City Star

Carolyn Glenn Brewer hadn’t given her own childhood trauma much thought until 2007, when she and other survivors of the Ruskin Heights tornado gathered for a 50th anniversary reunion.

Most who showed up were fellow baby boomers.

Many had moved to far-off cities, as Brewer’s generation was prone to do. But they took with them the memories of an awful experience that their elders in the Ruskin Heights neighborhood didn’t discuss much.

Weren’t their parents the unlucky victims, as Brewer had long thought? The parents, after all, had purchased new homes that rose from wheat fields southeast of Kansas City, where twisters of an earlier time might pass without notice.

On May 20, 1957, a weather bulletin interrupting “I Love Lucy” signaled a threat to those postwar dreams. What the youngsters would call “the monster” was on its way.

TORNADO FUNNEL CLOUD
The deadly tornado traveled 71 miles from Kansas into Missouri, claiming dozens of lives. It roared through Spring Hill in Johnson County.

Roaring in from the southwest, the tornado traveled 71 miles, killing people in the Kansas towns of Ottawa and Spring Hill, then in Grandview and Hickman Mills. Now it aimed to cut through the fresh suburban streets of unincorporated Ruskin Heights.

When it was over, the modern high school gymnasium was an open-air hulk under steel arches. The letters S and K had been ripped off “Ruskin” on the signage. Morning revealed what was left of the sign and the community: “RU IN.”

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Brewer, who was finishing second grade, later chronicled the disaster in a book published in 1997. But not until the reunion did she recognize that she hadn’t collected the full story, which was as much about the children as the adults.

“There were no grief counselors available back then,” Brewer said. “We went back to school the next fall and nothing was discussed about what we’d been through. …

“We were all freaking out but not really allowed to express it.”

When they reunited, they learned of having common traits. Many had drawn tornadoes in their spiral notebooks when bored in class. Even as adults, some suffered recurring nightmares and panic attacks when bad weather approached.

Lynda Leopold, who was 9 in 1957, would endure more than 40 surgeries related to her injuries from the storm.

When Brewer embarked on her second book about the disaster, “Caught Ever After: Children of the Ruskin Heights Tornado,” Leopold relayed to her: “I think in some way my whole life has been an acting out of my experiences related to the the tornado.”

From southwest Franklin County, Kan., to perhaps Raytown, 44 people were reported dead in the twister’s path. About one-tenth of those killed were born after World War II.

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More than 500 people were injured.

By the time the tornado crossed into Missouri, it is thought to have reached EF-5 stage, the most powerful storm classification now assigned by weather professionals. Cars were carried for blocks, stores at Ruskin Shopping Center were reduced to rubble, choir books from a Presbyterian church landed in northern Missouri pastures, and at least one local student’s school records fluttered down from the skies over Iowa.

Some of the kids vanished with their families from the places destroyed that evening, never to come back.

But unlike the survivors of previous Kansas City disasters, the children within those 71 miles of wreckage would one day log on to the Web to find each other. The survivors’ Facebook page has 438 members posting thoughts and photos — not just of the tragedy they shared, but also of the lives they’ve since led.

“I think the tornado affected all, and in many different ways,” Hank Stewart from Florida wrote last month. He was 4 when nearly killed in Hickman Mills. As medical workers scurried to help those who could be saved, a triage team twice wrote him off.

“Not sure why I’m still on this planet,” he posted on Facebook, “but I wrestled the monster and won.”

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