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Survivor recalls Ruskin Heights tornado on 65-year anniversary

F5/EF5 Tornadoes 1950-2022
Posted at 5:30 AM, May 20, 2022
and last updated 2022-05-20 07:45:13-04

KANSAS CITY, Mo.  — It was 65-years-ago today on May 20, 1957, when the strongest tornado to ever strike the Kansas City area occurred.

Forty-four people were killed by this powerful F-5, now called an EF-5 tornado, as it touched down near Ottawa, Kansas, and was on the ground for 71 miles.

Tornado Path

The tornado reached peak strength with possibly over 300 MPH winds as it crossed the Kansas/Missouri state line and then blasted through the Ruskin Heights and Hickman Mills neighborhoods.

Jim Crawley's home was destroyed that day and he remembers it well. Here is Jim in 1957 when he was 9-years-old, and today in 2022, 65 years later.

Jim Crawley in 1957
Jim Crawley in 2022

Crawley is kneeling against the home that was destroyed in Ruskin Heights, and just a few days ago when I met up with him for this story.

We will hear more from Crawley in just a second.

Let's begin with how rare F-5 and EF-5 tornadoes are with a look at the history of the most powerful storm on Earth.

F5/EF5 Tornadoes from 1950-2022

F5/EF5 Tornadoes 1950-2022

"F" stands for Fujita. Dr. Ted Fujita developed the Fujita scale for tornado damage and wind estimates in 1971.

We started using the Enhanced Fujita scale in 2007, or the EF scale.

Tornado winds likely do exceed 300 MPH in the strongest tornadoes, and the F-5 tornado that reached its peak intensity near Ruskin Heights 65-years-ago, was likely one of the strongest to hit the world.

On this day in 1957, Crawley was 9-years-old.

He was playing ball at the fields near the infamous water tower that was left standing while almost everything else was leveled, when they called the game.

He didn't know why they stopped the game and sent everyone home as it wasn't storming yet.

Crawley's father had heard that a meteorologist from Richard's Gebaur Air Force Base, which was closed in 1999, reported a strong storm was on the way.

"He explained to the officials there is a huge storm coming out of the Olathe area," Crawley said. "It had a tornado with it, on the ground. He informed us and undoubtedly as meteorologists do, saved lives. And, I'm sure he saved lives that day."

They went home and his dad thought they should get into the car and drive away, but he thought better of that as he could see it coming.

Crawley, his father and grandmother all huddled together in the garage which had a solid foundation around them in there, as you can see in the pictures.

The tornado was moving fast with a forward speed of around 40 MPH.

"It seemed like it lasted hours, but it was seconds, minutes," Crawley said. "It was so loud I couldn't hear any glass breaking or anything. They say it sounds like a freight train, well this sounded like five or six freight trains crashing."

Here is the tornado as it was first touching down near Ottawa, Kansas.

Ruskin Heights Tornado Near Ottawa, KS

The lowering cloud above the tornado is called a "wall cloud."

These lowering clouds are caused by lower pressure and then the funnel touching the ground is where the pressure likely gets extremely low, but it has never been measured how low the pressure may actually get in the tornado near the ground.

Tornadoes are the most powerful storms on Earth.

Crawley and his family survived.

As his family woke up and walked through the Ruskin area the next day in the light of day, Crawley's parents searched for items that might belong to them.

"I searched for my best friend — Boots, my dog. I found him about three backyards down from us," Crawley said. "Unfortunately, the storm had killed him. That's when the horror of the tornado hit me. I realized that the storm could have killed one or all three of us. Shock set in and I was told I did not talk for five days."

The pets are often not thought of during the aftermath of these disasters.

After the EF-5 Joplin tornado that killed more than 150 people on May 22, 2011, over 900 animals were left homeless for quite some time in the aftermath of that disaster with a still unknown amount of animals and pets killed.

The world has not had an EF-5 tornado since May 20, 2013, when Moore, Oklahoma, was devastated by over 300 MPH winds.

So, this level of intensity in a tornado is quite rare, thank goodness. Let's hope this streak continues.

Let's remember Ruskin Heights tornado today, 65-years-later. Thank you to Jim for your story!