This one took its biggest toll on children.
About 10:30 on the morning of May 11, 1886, the skies above downtown Kansas City changed from radiant blue to murky green, a sight that witnesses would never forget. A giant cloud formation barreling in from the southwest paused over the south bank of the Missouri River, casting darkness onto Lathrop School at Eighth and May streets.
Frank Askew, a seventh-grader, had been tasked with yanking the rope that led to a bell in the school tower, signaling the end of recess. His schoolmates filed back into the three-story building as lightning began to erupt.
What followed would be known for several decades as Kansas City’s worst storm, the “cyclone” of 1886.
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The spinning winds over Lathrop School ripped apart the top of the belfry and sent heavy masonry, plus the bell, crashing through two floors into the basement.
Fifteen youngsters on the lower floors were killed.
“There was no time to escape — scarcely time for the imprisoned children to scream,” The Star reported that Tuesday afternoon.
Most of the dead were younger than 13. Some were offspring of business executives residing in the tony Quality Hill neighborhood just west of the school.
Askew and his seventh-grade classmates had been exiting from an upper floor, passing a roomful of younger children, when the ceiling above them began to bulge.
He told The Star on the 50th anniversary of the tragedy: “I have the awful recollection of those children throwing up their hands and starting for the door when that whole mass from the upper room fell through and enveloped them.”
The cyclone — most likely a tornado — swirled on to the northeast and, according to newspaper’s report at the time, “leveled buildings … as though they were as fragile as eggshells.”
Near Third and Main streets, a factory housing the Haar Overall Co. collapsed, killing five workers. Another block north, two people inside the Jackson County Courthouse died when the roof fell in.
At the river, the winds took out a section of the Hannibal & St. Joseph Railroad Bridge, the first permanent span of the Missouri.
By 11:15 a.m., the storm cell had passed. The final death toll came to 28.
Most devastating to the city were the 15 young lives lost at the school.
One teacher told The Kansas City Times that he had worried about the durability of the bell tower and took his concerns to the school board.
In the face of a tragedy that claimed youngsters from several prominent families, school officials insisted that the tower had been adequately reinforced after a recent inspection. It just couldn’t withstand what the board called in a statement “the irresistable fury of the storm.”
“Certainly,” the statement concluded, “if the members of the board had thought the building unsafe, they would not have trusted their own flesh and blood within its walls, as did two of the members, one of whose children was severely injured.”
The board eventually called for the removal of all bell towers in schools.
Lathrop relocated to 13th and Central streets, where the building was lost to a 1900 fire.