55 Years Later, Memories of Ruskin Heights Tornado Still Haunt Survivors

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — As the city of Joplin prepares to mark the one-year anniversary of the tornado that killed 161 people and flattened a large section of the city, long-time residents in one south Kansas City neighborhood are preparing to mark a tragic anniversary of their own.

Sunday will mark the 55th anniversary of the Ruskin Heights tornado, which killed 40 people and injured hundreds more as it tore a 71-mile path across the southern part of the metro from Franklin County, Kansas, and extending through Martin City, Grandview, Hickman Mills, Kansas City and Raytown.

Along the way, the EF-5 tornado destroyed Ruskin High School and thousands of homes, buildings and businesses. The Ruskin Heights neighborhood along Blue Ridge Boulevard in south Kansas City was hit particularly hard, and today a memorial near the rebuilt Ruskin High commemorates the May 20, 1957 tornado.

Carolyn Brewer was just seven years old when the twister smashed through her neighborhood. She says that her father thought the evening sky looked strange, and he stepped outside to take a look.

“He saw it hitting the high school, could tell pieces of the high school flying up,” said Brewer. “It was going 35 miles-an-hour, that’s not much time.”

Brewer says that she was separated from her family, and was alone in her bedroom when the storm hit her home.

“I’m trying to figure out what’s going on,” said Brewer, remembering that night 55 years ago. “My toys are flying out the window, there’s a horrible roar.”

Afterwards, she says that nobody really ever talked about what happened to her neighborhood.

“Their parents said that’s for the adults to worry about, you don’t have to worry about that. But we did worry about it,” said Brewer.

Brewer has written about the Ruskin Heights Tornado – “Caught in the Path,” and now her second book, “Caught Ever After,” which focuses on the storm from a child’s perspective. She interviewed the kids – now in their late 50’s and 60’s – about what they saw that night and in the aftermath of the storm.

“(One young survivor) was in the back seat (of a car) looking out the back window,” said Brewer. “He could see his house pick up of the ground, roll back into the house behind it and explode.”

Brewer says that those stories and experiences were eerily similar to what she saw when she visited Joplin last fall.

“Even though I was well prepared, I knew what I was going to see, it literally took my breath away,” said Brewer. “I couldn’t talk. It was overwhelming.”

She says that even though the Ruskin Heights tornado struck 55 years ago, she and her fellow survivors feel the same way.

“Not only living through it again themselves, but realizing how much the people of Joplin have to deal with and continue to have to deal with the rest of their lives,” said Brewer.

Click here for more information about Carolyn Brewer and “Caught Ever After.”

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