Massachusetts Tornadoes Leave 3 Dead, 200 Injured
Deadly Mass. twisters tore through 18 communities
Death toll lowered to three; at least 200 people hurt, 40 in Springfield
NBC, msnbc.com and news services, June 2, 2011
SPRINGFIELD, Mass. — Search and rescue efforts continued and some 40,000 utility customers in Massachusetts were still without power on Thursday after tornadoes ripped through communities.
One piece of good news Thursday was that the death toll, initially reported at four, was lowered to three.
Two people were killed in West Springfield and another in Brimfield, authorities said. A Springfield death previously blamed on storms may have been an unrelated heart attack, Gov. Deval Patrick said.
Residents of Springfield, the state's third largest city, as well as 17 smaller communities were dealing with widespread damage.
"We have a lot of folks doing search and rescue, dealing with debris piles," said Peter Judge, spokesman for the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency.
Patrick declared a state of emergency after at least two tornadoes touched down, accompanied by high winds, heavy rain, hail and severe thunderstorms.
The late-afternoon tornadoes shocked emergency officials and residents more accustomed to dealing with snow and bone-chilling cold than funnel clouds spawned by spring storms. The severe weather damaged buildings and uprooted trees.
At least 200 people were injured. Some 40 people were hospitalized in Springfield and around 250 others displaced by the storm stayed at shelters, Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno said.
The state normally averages about two tornadoes per year, with the last lethal twister in 1995.
Patrick told ABC's "Good Morning America" on Thursday that considering how quickly the tornadoes formed, he feels fortunate there weren't more fatalities.
"When I spoke with the mayor of Springfield yesterday, he told me they had about 10 minutes' warning," Patrick said.
Experts were to fly over the region Thursday to assess damage from the nation's latest burst of violent weather, while others planned to analyze video and damage on the ground to determine the number and strength of the tornadoes, National Weather Service meteorologist Benjamin Sipprell said.
As officials looked at the data, the Rev. Bob Marrone was pained to see the steeple of his 137-year-old church shattered and strewn on the grass in Monson, yet he knew he was more fortunate than some of his neighbors who lost their homes.
"I can see the plywood of roofs, and see houses where most of the house is gone," said Marrone, pastor of The First Church of Monson. "The road that runs up in front of my house ... There's so many trees down, it's completely impassable."
Monson, population 10,000, was possibly the hardest hit town. Patrick toured neighborhoods there on Thursday, saying homes were lifted off foundations and hurled into trees. He met one family that had just made their last mortgage payment and whose home was destroyed.
The first tornado touched down at about 4:30 p.m. ET in Springfield and then moved east, the National Weather Service said.
A second tornado hit in north Springfield at about 6:20 p.m. ET and then also continued east, authorities said.
The storm pulverized or sheared off the tops of roofs on Main Street in Springfield, a city of more than 150,000 about 90 miles west of Boston.
A mounted video camera captured dramatic footage of a debris-filled funnel as it swept into downtown from the west, then swirling across the Connecticut River.
"Everything started shaking. The whole building was shaking," said Shonda Lopez, who was at home when the tornado struck before dinner time.
Lopez' sister, Margaret Alexander, hid in a closet in her apartment during the storm.
She and 15 family members, including a daughter, two granddaughters and the family dog, Sasha, later went to the MassMutual Center, a cavernous event center in downtown Springfield that was converted into an emergency shelter.
Patrick also called up 1,000 National Guardsmen after the storms, which brought scenes of devastation more familiar in the South and Midwest to a part of the country where such violent weather isn't a way of life.
Massachusetts hasn't experienced a tornado since 2008, according to the Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla.
The last killer tornado in Massachusetts was on May 29, 1995, when three people died in Great Barrington, a town along the New York state border. The state's deadliest recorded tornado on June 9, 1953, killed 94 people in the Worcester area. In Sturbridge, at the junction of the Massachusetts Turnpike and Interstate 84, a half-mile section of Main Street was shut down after a tornado damaged homes and felled trees, according to town administrator Shaun Suhoski.
Suhoski said some people suffered "cuts, scrapes, bruises," though no serious injuries were immediately reported. The storm blew trees into houses and severely damaged telephone poles and rooftops, he said.
The storm hit as workers were starting the evening commute home. Police closed some highway ramps leading into Springfield.
Upstairs at the Mass Mutual Center, seniors from Minnechaug Regional High School in Wilbraham dressed in gowns and tuxedos arrived for their prom, which was held despite the tornado, which had raced past just a few hours earlier.
Jola Wnuk said she almost didn't attend because of the weather. But her mother persuaded her to go. "She said it's once in a lifetime," Wnuk said.
A tornado watch had been issued earlier for much of the East Coast, including Philadelphia, New York and Boston.
Bob Pashko, of West Springfield, said he was returning from his doctor's office when the storm started and he went to a downtown bar in Springfield to wait for a ride.
"The next thing you know, the TV says a tornado hit the railroad bridge in West Springfield," Pashko said. "It's the baddest I've seen."
At the bar, Pashko said, the owner told people to get away from the window as patrons saw the storm on TV.
"To see it live on TV when I'm five football fields away is better than being outside," the 50-year-old Pashko said.
Members of the state's congressional delegation said they would seek federal assistance for storm-damaged areas.
Patrick said there was extensive damage in Hampden County, especially to homes and other structures. He asked superintendents in the 18 affected communities to cancel school Thursday and told nonessential state employees in counties impacted by the storms to stay home.
Some 40,000 customers were still without power late Thursday morning. Crews from utilities in Connecticut and New Hampshire were called in to help restore service.
The U.S. has been battered by tornadoes this year and more than 500 people have been killed, most of them in the Southeast, especially Alabama, and in Joplin, Mo. The vJoplin tornado killed 134 people, making it the deadliest single twister since 1947.
The Associated Press, Reuters, NBC News and msnbc.com staff contributed to this report.