June 9, 1953, was a typical summer Tuesday in Worcester. By 4:30 p.m., there were ballgames going on, shops closing up, factory workers heading home.
"People didn't really know that it was coming," said Robyn Conroy, librarian and archivist at Worcester Historical Museum, who runs an oral history project about the 1953 Worcester tornado, talking with survivors about what they experienced that day.
"They knew it was very hot, they knew it got very dark, they saw the hail, but they still, I don't think they really believed that it was a tornado or knew what it meant," Conroy said.
What it meant was that the largest tornado to ever hit New England — before or since — was about to tear through the city.
There had been tornados in Massachusetts before, even in Worcester, but nothing like this. The funnel was a full mile wide. It traveled over 60 miles over the course of nearly an hour and half — through Barre, Rutland, Holden and Shrewsbury. But what happened in Worcester, was truly devastating.
"A bus got lifted up, spun around and slammed into one of the apartment buildings and it killed two people on the bus," Conroy said. "There’s a story of a woman who went to her front door and she said she saw cows floating by. People were hunkered down in their basements and once it got over and they looked up, they’d see the sky. Their house was gone."
One of the areas hit hardest was around Assumption Prepratory School — today Quinsigamond Community College.
"There was a wooden house where some nuns were living, and it obliterated that house, and unfortunately the nuns who were in the house were killed," Conroy said.
It also ripped off the entire fourth floor of the school. Richard Dion, a student there at the time, spoke with Conroy for the oral history project. When the windows blew out in his third floor dorm room he tried to run.
"When I opened the door I was sucked right out, and flew down the hallway," Dion said. " … Yeah, I don’t think my feet were on the floor, and I was able to hook onto a radiator pipe and that’s where I laid until it was over."
Outside it was just as bad. It was rush hour and hundreds of people found themselves trapped in their cars.
"It only lasted about two minutes, but those two minutes seemed like an eternity — and then we felt the sensation of getting picked up," said Rose Sands, who also participated in the oral history project. Sands, who was 24 at the time, was in the car with her sister and her husband when the tornado hit.
"My sister was hysterical, she’s screaming and I was screaming," she said. "All we could hear was this deafening hum. Just a hum that was so deafening and I didn’t dare close my eyes because I thought if I close my eyes I am going to die."
Rose didn’t. But 94 other people did. More than 1,200 were injured. Fifteen thousand residents were left homeless.
But like is so often the case, in the aftermath of great tragedy, came great acts of humanity. Conroy says that people came from all over the region, immediately, to help.
"They put mattresses on the back of pickup trucks to get people to the hospital, tried to dig people out," Conroy said. "It was an amazing response."
And in the weeks and months after, Conroy says Worcester's leaders led.
"A lot of the leading businessmen, the presidents of the big companies, really opened their pockets and really opened up their hearts," she said.
And so the city rebuilt. Today, there’s almost no evidence that such a devastating storm ever tore through Worcester, except in the memories of those who lived through that harrowing day.
"They still have a hard time talking about it, and it’s still like yesterday every time there’s a bad storm. They immediately go into the basement they don’t go outside like some people do and go look at that cloud coming in. It’s real to them.
The strongest tornado to ever hit New England, devastating Worcester, 61 years ago this week.