History of the West Park
Cleveland, Cuyahoga County, Ohio
Tornado of 8 June 1953
The Night Hell Visited Cleveland
June 8th 1953
By Arthur W. Zimmerman, Bay Village, OH.
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You might say I am one of those weather freaks. I become especially interested in the weather between the months of March through August. During that period my attention is drawn to the weather page in the morning paper and in the evening, over dinner, I watch and listen to the weather predictions on the TV. Like some weird survivalist, I stock up on some provisions in my cellar and make sure I have extra flashlights stashed throughout the house.
My nervousness usually manifests itself when I hear about the possibility of severe weather in our area. If violent weather is coming, I look skyward and always try to decipher those dark ominous cloud formations. Perhaps, at this point you might think that my interest verges on some form of paranoia. Well indeed this might be the case. However, I personally feel I am just being prudent. You see, I am one of the few that has experienced, first hand, the horror of weather gone insane.
It was some fifty years ago that a killer tornado touched down in Cleveland and plowed a path of death and destruction through the western suburbs. The twister missed our house by less than five hundred yards.
I was about ten years old at the time and like any kid, I was enjoying the beginning of summer vacation. My family lived off of West 117th Street, on Worthington Avenue, about a mile from the old Lindale Round house. It was late June and that particular day started out as hot and muggy. By noon the temperature had climbed beyond 90 degrees and there was not a breath of moving air. My buddies and I decided to head down to the old shade tree located at the corner of our street. We felt that we might find a cool spot under the tree. But it seemed that just lying under the tree was much too strenuous. The heat beat down throughout the afternoon hours and there seemed to be no let-up.
Evening soon arrived and by nine o’clock my younger brother and I were shuttled off to bed after a cold bath. We lay awake upstairs in our stifling hot bedroom listening to the roar of the window fan as it feebly attempted to move some cooling air through our attic bedroom. We tossed and turned in a vain attempt to find a cool place amongst the sheets. Eventually we dozed off. I remember waking briefly as a muted flash of lightening flicked across the ceiling. I rolled over, covered my head with the pillow, and drifted into a dreamless sleep.
Maybe an hour had passed when suddenly I found myself being dragged out of bed. It was my dad and he was very agitated. He was shouting at me to get down stairs now! In my confused state I figured that I had done something wrong during the day and I was about to get one hell of a good strapping. Dad followed quickly on my heels and I could vaguely make out his silhouette as he dragged my kid brother along with him.
As I grouped for the stairs I glanced in the direction of the fan and noticed that the blades were not moving although there was still a roar. It also struck me as strange that dad hadn't turned on the lights to our bed room. Stumbling down the stairs, I ran and grouped my way through the darkened front room and started toward the basement, I heard a crash of glass from our upstairs bedroom and I recall the sound of creaking throughout the entire house as if someone was trying to lift it off of its foundation.
The roaring sound followed us down into the basement and it even seemed to increase in intensity. We didn’t stop until we were in the basement. I remember seeing the vague outlines of my mother and my grandfather huddled in a far corner. During the conversation between mom and dad I heard, for the first time, the word – tornado.
That night our family stayed in the basement. There was no electricity so dad had set up a candle on his workbench, the flickering light casting weird shadows on the walls and ceiling. My brother and I lay on the cement floor and we managed to find sleep on and off throughout the rest of the night.
The following morning dad allowed me to go back into our bedroom and get my glasses. I was astounded as to what met my eyes. The window right next to my bed was blown out and shards of glass were strewn over my entire mattress. In the middle of the bed and imbedded in the mattress was a large boulder. My brother’s side of the room was in total disarray. His bed lay in shambles. I found my glasses on the floor with one of the lenses cracked. Wayne and I quickly got dressed and headed outside.
The sight that met our eyes was out of some World War Two movie. Large two-by-fours were imbedded in our front lawn. Furniture and belongings that obviously were not ours lay everywhere. The telephone lines and power lines that remained standing had clothes draped across them. It was as if some giant had decided to hang out the wash. Our enclosed back porch had been moved off its foundation and the African Violets that mom had so carefully tended were now, strangely, sitting on the driveway still intact.
The neighborhood was in shambles. Families began to trickle out on to the street and view the carnage. Our neighbors began to go from house to house checking to see if everyone was all right. One of the fathers began organizing a search party. All the men and boys were put to the grisly task of searching the fields and woods for the missing or the dead. Our search took us down to Brooklawn Avenue.
As we stepped on to the street, we couldn’t comprehend the damage. Every house on the street no longer existed. Concrete slabs were the only things which showed evidence that a house once sat there. It was at this time I personally realized fear. A chill ran up my spine as I walked through the rubble. I met several of my friends who lived on that street. They stared at me but did not recognize me. Everyone in that area seemed to be in a state of shock.
We toured several of the adjoining streets and helped some people get to an aid station that was set up by the National Guard in a field at the end of our street. The twister, or twisters, cut a swath through Brooklawn Avenue, then angled across the middle of our street and then plowed into the apartments that faced West 117th Street. These large two story buildings were moved off of their foundations and sat on the edge of the street.
Perhaps the saddest fatality was of a baby plucked from a crib and slammed into the wall of a house. We were fortunate in that the body had been removed but the bloodstains remained. We stared silently at that wall and realized the storms power.
Later that day I had the opportunity to ask my dad about the previous night. He told me that as the storm approached, he had gone to the front door to peer out at the rain. As he watched, the storm appeared to abate and there followed an unnatural silence. Within seconds the wind picked up and it began to hail ice the size of golf balls. The hail stopped as suddenly as it started, and again a ghostly silence settled over the neighborhood.
Dad said there was then a roar like a thousand freight trains and all the trees started to flail about on the street then bend flat to the ground. It was at this time dad knew what was happening and this was when he rushed upstairs to get us. If he had been seconds later, my brother and I could have been on the list of fatalities.
The years have passed and the neighborhood around West 117th and Bellaire shows nothing from that horrible night. But for many of us that witnessed that fateful night so long ago, the emotional scars will always remain. Even today, as the skies darken and severe weather is eminent many of us will still remember the night Hell visited Cleveland.
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Charles C. Chaney
14 June 2014