The Worcester tornado of 1953 struck without warning and cut a swath of destruction, at times a mile wide, through a half-dozen towns. It was the worst tornado in New England history, and one of the 25 worst tornadoes in U.S. history.
For 90 minutes it stayed on the ground, traveling 48 miles from Petersham through Worcester to Shrewsbury, Southborough and Westborough. Finally it petered out over Framingham, having gobbled up everything in its way.
New England’s worst tornado blew down houses, threw cars out of parking lots, ripped trees from their roots. It grabbed bodies and entire houses and tossed them into Lake Quinsigamond. It snatched paper in Holden and dropped it in Eastham on Cape Cod. The tornado brought with it hailstones the size of baseballs and rained debris on Boston suburbs.
It officially killed 90 people, unofficially killed 94, injured 1,300 and destroyed 4,000 buildings. More than 10,000 people lost their homes.
In the end, New England’s worst tornado would change the way the National Weather Service ran the Storm Prediction Center to give more timely and accurate warnings of dangerous weather events.
The deadly twister belonged to an outbreak of tornadoes over the northern United States for three days, from June 6-9. A high-pressure system collided with a low-pressure mass over Nebraska, which generated tornadoes in Ohio, Michigan and Nebraska.
The Flint-Beecher tornado on June 8 — the worst tornado to strike Michigan — killed 116 people and injured 844. Seven other tornadoes in the Upper Midwest that day killed nine more people and injured 52 more.
The mass of cold air moved east overnight, dropping temperatures rapidly in New England. The cold front collided with warm air from the South, creating highly unusual conditions for a tornado in the northeastern United States.
National Weather Service forecasters in Boston knew a tornado was likely. But it was the first year the NWS forecast tornadoes, and the forecasters feared telling the public lest they cause panic.
Forecasters issued a severe thunderstorm watch instead. So when at 4:25 p.m. the twister touched down near the Quabbin Reservoir in a Petersham forest, no one was prepared.
Fear at First Sight
Boaters on the Quabbin Reservoir first noticed the boiling clouds in the sky, which formed into three funnels. One dissipated, but twin funnels headed southeast.
At first they terrorized farm country. Near Barre a twister collapsed a two-story farmhouse and threw 18-year-old Barbara Knight and 11-year-old Eddie White hundreds of feet to their deaths. Eddie’s mother suffered a fractured spine. His older sister June survived, having been thrown through the air on a door and fallen back to earth safely.
The worst tornado moved through Rutland, killing two. Then it killed nine more people in Holden, where it wiped out the Brentwood subdivision and all but 12 of the 75 homes in White Oaks. A 12-year-old boy, Larry Faucher, struggled against the wind to bring his bicycle home, but the killer tornado picked him up before he made it and hurled him to his death in a field.
The black storm cloud grew to a mile wide by the time it slammed into Worcester. Mrs. Virginia Harrison was the first of 60 people killed in in the city by the tornado. She was swept away with her stately home, which had just appeared in a Better Homes and Gardens photo.
No social class was spared. People were crushed to death in collapsing triple deckers or lost their homes in the fire afterward. A priest and two nuns were killed at Assumption College (now Quinsigamond Community College).
The Uncatena-Great Brook Valley neighborhoods suffered the worst destruction. Houses simply vanished and entire blocks of homes leveled. The tornado picked up a 12-ton bus and slammed it against the Curtis Apartments, killing two and dropping the buildings’ blueprints in Duxbury, Mass. At the Brookside Home Farm, a dairy, six men were killed and the herd of 80 Holstein cows wiped out.
Winds reached speeds of 335 mph, among the highest ever recorded. The tornado caught up people on the street and hurled them to their deaths. Or it tossed around cars and mangled the people inside. It plucked people out of their shattered homes or impaled them on flying debris.
Someone found a wedding dress in Worcester hanging from a telephone wire in Natick. A chunk of mattress found floating in the Massachusetts Bay, 100 miles away.
Still that wasn’t the end of it. The worst tornado turned east and barreled through Shrewsbury, killing 12, through Westborough, killing six, and through Soutborough, where it claimed three more victims. It crushed them in the collapse of the Fayville Post Office.
The worst tornado had company in New England that day. A smaller tornado struck Sutton, Northbridge, Mendon, Bellingham, Franklin, Wrentham and Mansfield, injuring 17. A still smaller twister injured several people in Fremont and Exeter in New Hampshire, and others caused minor damage in Colrain, Mass.
People at first thought the Soviet Union had launched an attack on Massachusetts — or maybe it was a side effect of the nuclear testing in the Southwest.
The National Guard came out to quell panic and to help search for bodies and find the still-living under rubble. Several small children were found under the bodies of dead parents. Husbands and wives were found dead together, locked in a final embrace.
The tornado damaged the Norton Co., Worcester’s largest employer, shattering every window and tearing off the roof. But the company continued operations, employing 5,700 local people making grinding gears and abrasives.
On June 10, a young U.S. senator named John F. Kennedy came to inspect the damage from the storm.
Eight days after the worst tornado struck New England, the U.S. government reorganized the Storm Prediction Center and implemented a national radar system to spot storms. Until the Joplin, Mo., tornado of 2011, no storm since killed more than 100 people.
Photos of the worst tornado damage courtesy Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection, except for the photo of “Robert Stoddard and John Kennedy” by Source (WP:NFCC#4). Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia. For a slide show of the Worcester tornado, click here. This story was updated in 2020.