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The Worcester Twister

Assumption College, 1953

In June of 1953, the Worcester tornado claimed the lives of 94, including several faculty members at Assumption College, now Quinsigamond Community College, making it the fourth deadliest twister in U.S. history. The Burncoat Street area was also severely hit.

Fifty years ago a tornado wreaked havoc on Worcester County. Some of us will never forget.

William R. Grogan '46

At four o'clock in the afternoon of June 9, 1953, the WPI faculty entered Boynton Hall for its last meeting of the year. Professor Francis J. Adams of the Electrical Engineering Department, secretary of the faculty, took attendance, as he always did, entirely from memory. Physics professor Ralph Heller arrived late, as he always did, and apologized profusely. The business was conducted efficiently since there was little voting in those days. Who in that secure setting could have imagined that within the hour many of their homes would be destroyed--and many of their lives changed forever?

At 4:55 p.m. the sky suddenly grew dark and the fourth deadliest tornado in American history bore down on the town of Holden, just north of Worcester. The twister was extremely powerful and reached a width of one-half mile. Fifteen minutes later it entered the city of Worcester at Brattle Street. In just moments it ravaged Norton Company, then headed for Assumption College (now Quinsigamond Community College). The campus was reduced to rubble and several faculty members were killed.

The funnel moved to the Burncoat Street area, then entered Great Brook Valley, which at the time was a low-cost housing project for WWII veterans and their families. Many children lived there-- and many children died there that fateful day.

As clapboards, roofing shingles, letters and bank checks from the Worcester area rained onto the streets of Wellesley and Quincy 35 miles to the east, the Boston weather bureau issued the first tornado warning in New England's history. It was 5:45 p.m.

Many WPI faculty and staff who lived in the affected areas lost their homes. Marianne McNulty, wife of the late WPI coach Charlie McNulty, vividly recalls being home alone with her 2-year-old son, Gary. The house began to shake violently, the windows blew out and the side of the house buckled. With Gary in her arms she rushed to the enclosed stairway to avoid flying glass. This is where Charlie and fellow coach Merl Norcross found them, over an hour later. Marianne's older son, Chipper, 8, was visiting a friend down the street. The mother of Chipper's friend had put both boys behind the sofa and lay on top of them. They escaped harm, but just across the street two children were not so lucky. They perished in the wake of the twister.

Burncoat Supermarket With WPI students already gone for the summer, Sanford Riley Hall was empty. It was quickly pressed into service as a shelter. A doctor and a few nurses staffed the makeshift hospital and neighbors brought sheets, blankets and coffee. All through the night, National Guard trucks deposited victims at the door, while ambulances howled endlessly throughout the city.

I spent the night at Sanford Riley recording who was there and an estimate of their condition for the local radio stations. Meanwhile, students ran the information over to Professor Hobart Newell at WPI's ham station, W1YK, to be relayed to frantic relatives across the country.

Since the National Guard was occupying Alden Memorial Auditorium, WPI's commencement was held outside for the first time. On June 13, graduation ceremonies for the Class of 1953 took place on the football field. Amid the pomp and circumstance it was hard to imagine that just five days earlier a great storm had ravaged Worcester County. Fifty years later, the memories of June 9, 1953--though faded--remain vivid to many.

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