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An ill wind Worcester won't forget.

Byline: Sid McKeen


Whenever I think about the tornado that swept across Central Massachusetts 60 years ago today - and I've thought about it often - I can't help recalling one of the most memorable interviews I ever had.

I was a reporter for The Evening Gazette in Worcester on June 9, 1953, when the twister snaked its way along a path 48 miles long, causing 94 deaths and damages that in today's money would amount to somewhere around half a billion dollars.

A few days after the 21st most destructive tornado in American history had cut its deadly swath from Petersham to Framingham, our assistant city editor, a gentleman of the old school named Don Johnson, asked me to try to reach noted architect Frank Lloyd Wright by phone, and get his take on designing tornado-proof homes. He had designed Tokyo's Imperial Hotel, which withstood two earthquakes.

Doing a quick scan of Wright's bio in the newspaper library, I learned that he normally summered in Spring Green, Wis. With the help of directory assistance, I put through a call to his location, fully expecting to run a gauntlet of protective secretaries and assistants.

Not so. A gruff voice answered. It was the man himself, generally considered the greatest architect of his time. I dropped my pencil and notebook, and struggled to sound professional. "I imagine you've heard about the tornado we've had in Massachusetts," I stammered. No, he said, he hadn't. "Was it bad?" I affirmed it was.

Wright was off and running, and I had all I could do to keep up with him. "The biggest trouble with New Englanders," he rumbled, "is that they insist on building those little two-story boxes. The first thing they should do is build right down close to the ground. A one-story house is a lot safer than one that's built up high under any kind of conditions. Wood beats anything if it's constructed soundly. That's because wood has tenuity - slenderness and flexibility - and tenuity is basic in designing a home. If a home has this property, it will resist earthquake or violent wind." He went on like that for what must have been 10 minutes, then barked abruptly, "Goodbye," and hung up. I had managed to record only part of it. Tape recorders had yet to be invented in the '50s.

With all due respect to the great one, my sense is that no design would be likely to withstand the force of an F4 tornado, the second most powerful rating and how the Worcester twister was classified after the Fujita Scale was developed in 1971.

On that fateful afternoon in 1953, I was on assignment in the town of Leicester, just west of the city, accompanied by a photographer, an Air Force veteran of World War II who had seen many such storms when he was stationed in the Midwest. Looking east to the Worcester skyline, he remarked, "That's a tornado, I'm telling you."

I tried to tell him different, but by the time we got back to Worcester, the sirens from police cruisers, ambulances and fire engines told me he was right on the money. It took me more than an hour to navigate the 5 or 6 miles to our apartment on Channing Street, about a mile south of the old Assumption College campus in the Greendale section, which had been decimated.

Interesting footnote: According to Wikipedia, 1953 was the first year tornado warnings were issued, but National Weather Service forecasters in Boston decided not to use them on June 9, for fear they might cause panic.

"Was it bad?" asked Frank Lloyd Wright. It was horrendous.

Reach Sid McKeen at
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Title Annotation:COMMENTARY
Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Geographic Code:1U1MA
Date:Jun 9, 2013
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