Tornadoes kill four; emergency is declared

Storms smash Western, Central Mass.; damage reported in 19 communities

Globe Staff / June 2, 2011

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This story was reported by Travis Andersen, Eric Moskowitz, Martin Finucane, Glen Johnson, Bryan Marquard, and David Abel of the Globe staff. It was written by Abel.

SPRINGFIELD — Tornadoes tore through Western and Central Massachusetts yesterday, killing at least four people, injuring an untold number, and reducing schools, churches, and homes to splinters along its destructive path.

Governor Deval Patrick declared a state of emergency throughout Massachusetts and ordered up to 1,000 troops from the National Guard to help with rescue efforts. He said at least 19 communities had reported damage and he asked officials in those towns and cities to close schools and keep nonemergency personnel home today to allow work crews to clear streets.

“We are in an emergency situation,’’ said the governor in a news conference at the state’s emergency management headquarters in Framingham. He said there had been reports of looting in Springfield, and he described the damage from the storm as extensive.

“We are hoping and praying and working as hard as possible to keep the fatalities limited to those four’’ already confirmed, he said.

Two of the deaths occurred in West Springfield, one in Springfield, and one in Brimfield, officials said. State Police said 33 people were injured in Springfield alone, including five seriously, in a storm that rapidly spread darkened skies across the state.

In Monson, residents described widespread damage that made the Central Massachusetts town look like it had been bombed. On some streets there appeared to be as many trees fallen as were still standing.

“There’s got to be 10 to 20 houses that are just completely gone,’’ said Heather M. Dickinson, 39, a resident who waited out the storm on her porch.

She said two churches in the small town had their steeples blown off and roofs had been torn off municipal buildings. She said the supermarket on Main Street was “wiped out’’ and several cars had been flipped over by the strong winds.

When the tornado came by, “it sounded like a . . . train coming in,’’ she said. She saw hail the size of golf balls. “We didn’t realize that it was a tornado until it was too late,’’ she said. “Everything is gone.’’

Destructive, deadly tornadoes are uncommon, but not unprecedented, in Massachusetts, and are typically the product of warm, moist air at the surface colliding with colder air aloft. The result can be explosive, as residents of Great Barrington can attest. In 1995, a Memorial Day twister killed three people hunkered down in their car.

One of the nation’s most lethal single tornadoes took aim at Worcester in 1953, killing 94.

Yesterday’s storm raised fears that Massachusetts could suffer similar losses to those that occurred when tornadoes swept through the Midwest over the past month.

Officials at the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency said yesterday that by 8 p.m. 20 communities had reported tornado touchdowns. They said the National Guard would help by clearing trees and doing wellness checks at damaged homes.

They added that rapid impact assessment teams, some from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, would begin surveying the damage this morning.

“We’re accustomed to seeing one to three tornado warnings or watches a year,’’ said Scott MacLeod, a spokesman for the state agency. “This is not a regular natural hazard we’re faced with in Massachusetts. This is absolutely very serious.’’

By 9 p.m., power companies throughout the state reported that more than 50,000 people had been without power and many live wires were down.

Officials at Logan International Airport began prohibiting planes from landing in Boston shortly before 7 p.m.

“The description of the damage is heartbreaking, but I will do everything I can to make the recovery process start immediately,’’ said US Representative Richard E. Neal, a Democrat who represents Springfield.

He added: “I have talked with a senior official in the White House and informed him that I will be aggressively seeking federal disaster assistance.’’

Patrick promised the state would help. “We’ll do everything we can to get people back on their feet,’’ he said.

In Springfield, Nelly Arocho, 21, said she saw a tornado rapidly advance toward her home on Central Street.

“It was just like a whole bunch of dirt at first,’’ she said. “When it started coming we started running’’ into the bathroom.

Arocho said although no one in her family was hurt, she was scared. “Nothing like this [has] ever happened’’ to us, she said.

Maria Markopoulos, 24, an owner of Maria’s Pizzeria & Seafood on Main Street in Monson, said she became worried when she heard loud noises that turned out to be hail.

But she did not realize the magnitude of the danger until a boy eating at the restaurant began screaming.

“He just starts screaming at the top of his lungs, and we took them back and said, ‘Everyone get in the basement,’ ’’ she said. “I saw movement. Circular movement, like I’ve never seen before.’’

About 10 seconds followed and light bulbs began bursting, window screens were blown in, and the shop’s electric sign was knocked over.

“I thought it was going to take the whole building right up above us,’’ she said.

Police blocked a large section of State Street, a main thoroughfare, due to the storm damage. On Maple Street, downed trees were nearly everywhere. Tow trucks could also be seen pulling damaged vehicles.

Carmen Melendez, 50, who lives nearby on Winthrop Street, saw a cloud of debris speeding toward her home when she looked out her window.

“I saw a lot of birds. I saw the wind. All the glass blew up’’ from her windows, she said. “It was a disaster.’’

She said police evacuated her street because of a gas leak. When the cloud came, she and her disabled child dropped to the floor and eventually made it to their bathroom.

“It came straight at me. I couldn’t do nothing,’’ she said, noting that they were unhurt.

On Central Street, several enormous trees fell on parked cars. Police said one of the victims in West Springfield died as a result of a tree falling on his car.

State Police spokesman David Procopio said the first calls began to come in at 4:30 p.m. of a tornado that appeared to touch down in Westfield, then move from Springfield’s downtown area near the North End Bridge into the East Forest Park neighborhood.

The midnight shift of Troop B, which covers Western Massachusetts, was called in early. And the State Police activated search and rescue and K-9 units due to reports of structural and vehicle damage in Springfield, which included damage to the roof of the city’s courthouse, he said.

Vehicle damage included a tractor-trailer that overturned on the city’s Memorial Bridge, which spans the Connecticut River.

State highways were passable in the area but many local roads were blocked by fallen trees, power lines, and other debris. State Police restricted motorists on Interstate 91 from entering the city, he said.

“We’re prepared to help the Police Department and Fire Department do searches of damaged buildings for possible victims,’’ he said.

He said State Police also responded to vehicles that had apparently been overturned by the storm on Interstate 84 in Sturbridge.

Significant damage was reported, along with sightings of a tornado, in Agawam, Charlton, Monson, Oxford, Palmer, West Springfield, Wilbraham, and Sturbridge, said Sergeant Michael Popovics, another State Police spokesman.

Officials at the Baystate Medical Center in Springfield said they had received 25 patients suffering storm-related injuries as of 11 p.m. Ten of those were serious injuries. Two victims were undergoing surgery, said Jane Albert, a spokeswoman for the medical center.

She said the injuries were consistent with flying debris whipped at high speeds by the storm.

The hospital had set up extra triage areas to treat the expected influx of patients, she said.

“We went into disaster mode around 5:30 p.m., and we were ready for everything and anything the storm could bring,’’ Albert said. “Fortunately, we didn’t have to use them, nor did we have to deploy all of our trauma surgeons.’’

In Boston, where police urged people to seek shelter throughout the city, officials said there had been little to no damage and no reported injuries.

James Gay, vice president of Dickinson-Streeter Funeral Services on State Street in Springfield, said he was in the office preparing to commute to his other business location in Northampton at about 5 p.m. when an air-raid-like siren sounded throughout the area for a few minutes, followed by a chorus of emergency vehicle sirens.

As he left, the sky was “very gray’’ and the air was “eerily’’ calm, he said.

“There were a lot of trees down on one of the side streets,’’ Gay said. “Police cars were flying everywhere, going the wrong way on one-way streets.’’

Officials at the National Weather Service in Taunton said the storms arose out of a combination of an unstable air mass at high altitudes with winds at ground level blowing in different directions. The mix created conditions ripe for funnel clouds, said William Babcock, a meteorologist for weather service.

He could not say how many tornadoes spawned from the storm last night, but he said the weather service had received at least six reports of tornado sightings throughout Western Massachusetts. He said a team of meteorologists would start an investigation today to determine how many touched down.

Unlike yesterday, today’s forecast is for nearly cloudless skies with temperatures in the upper 60s to lower 70s.

Contributing to this story were Michael Levenson and Donovan Slack of the Globe Staff and Globe Correspondents L. Finch, Jenna Duncan, and Neal J. Riley.