With storm raging, a mother makes the ultimate sacrifice

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By Eric Moskowitz and Jenna Russell
Globe Staff / June 3, 2011

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WEST SPRINGFIELD — As the killer storm bore down outside, Angelica Guerrero rushed her 15-year-old daughter to the bathroom and pressed the girl into the shelter of their bathtub. Then Guerrero climbed in herself, huddling protectively over her child.

It was the safest place the terrified mother could find. But it was not safe enough to save two lives.

Guerrero died when the three-family home she lived in collapsed around her, reduced in a devastating instant to a pile of rubble. Her daughter survived, as did her husband, also in the house. The 39-year-old mother was one of three people killed when tornadoes struck Central and Western Massachu setts Wednesday,

Sergey Livchin, 23, also of West Springfield, was killed when a tree crushed his 2005 Kia, and a woman died after being pinned under her trailer in Brimfield, investigators said.

As hundreds of residents picked through the remains of ruined homes yesterday, three families grieved graver losses. Tales of heroism surfaced — neighbors taking in neighbors; strangers helping strangers — but none was more compelling than that of the mother who shielded her daughter from harm.

West Springfield Police Chief Thomas Burke, a four-decade veteran of the department, paused to compose himself at a press conference as he described Guerrero’s sacrifice.

She made sure her child was safe and then “the house came down around her,’’ the chief said. “And she is the one who perished.’’

Guerrero’s daughter, who suffered severe cuts to both legs, was trapped in the rubble-covered bathtub for more than an hour, crying out in pain as rescuers cut through piles of twisted metal. The family lived on the first floor of the Union Street three-decker, which was flattened. Deputy Fire Chief Steven Manchino described a harrowing scene, as sparks from saws threatened to ignite leaking gas.

The house next door was also destroyed, said the fire chief, and an elderly woman was rescued from rubble. Guerrero’s daughter and husband, who were not identified by police, were taken to Baystate Medical Center in Springfield for treatment.

Guerrero, whose body has not yet been identified by her family, died of asphyxiation, officials said.

Others in the neighborhood narrowly escaped. At a house around the corner, a man pushed away a treadmill blocking the basement door just in time to usher his children to safety.

Livchin found no escape route. He was in his family’s car, near Hill and Main streets in West Springfield, when the storm hit, bringing down a massive tree. It was unclear yesterday if he was driving or parked.

“It crushed the roof right down to the seat,’’ said Manchino, who estimated the tree’s diameter at 3 feet.

The oldest of nine children, Livchin lived with his parents and siblings in a well-kept home on the north side of West Springfield. His sister Irina Livchin, 20, said their parents, Vladimir and Yelena Livchin, emigrated from Kyrgyzstan 16 years ago to seek a better life for their children.

Irina Livchin said her older brother, who had dropped out of West Springfield High School, was a jokester who liked to sleep late. She nagged him to get up early Wednesday, to go pick up a used treadmill she was buying, and he did. They spoke again at lunchtime: She joked that he shouldn’t waste some money she had loaned him, and he replied, laughing, “I’ll make sure I will.’’

A few hours later, her brother was gone.

“It was so unexpected, so unreal,’’ she said.

She said her father is trying to be strong, but her mother is suffering, in part because Sergey was the only one of her children who did not go to church, and she fears he may not have gone to heaven. “It’s killing her,’’ Irina Livchin said. “It’s heartbreaking.’’

About 25 miles away in Brimfield, Lester Twarowski, the owner of the Village Green Family Campground, said it took just 30 seconds for an enormous, debris-filled cloud to destroy all 97 trailers at the campground. The tornado lifted one trailer 30 feet into the air before tossing it back down, killing a woman inside and badly injuring a man who lived there, said Twarowski.

Officials in Brimfield did not release the victim’s name, but other campground residents said she was known as Ginger.

Camper Tracy Torteson said Ginger and her husband Rick were back for their second season at the campsite. She said Ginger enjoyed reading, photography, and especially walking her small dog, Daisy.

Travis Andersen of the Globe staff contributed to this report.