‘It looks like a war zone’

Victims lament tornadoes’ huge toll in property; hundreds hurt; more homeless

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By David Abel and Brian MacQuarrie
Globe Staff / June 3, 2011

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SPRINGFIELD — A day after deadly tornadoes ripped through Central and Western Massachusetts, dozens of injured residents were recovering in hospitals, hundreds were homeless, and tens of thousands remained without power.

The violent storm, which killed at least three people, spawned three tornadoes that destroyed nearly 200 buildings in West Springfield, Monson, and Springfield, and many other buildings across the region, authorities said. One of four people reported to have died as a result of the tornadoes on Wednesday was an elderly man in Springfield who suffered a heart attack before the powerful storms struck, local police said.

“We are now in effect transitioning from life safety response and search and rescue to the assessment and recovery and cleanup work,’’ Governor Deval Patrick said in an afternoon news conference yesterday at the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency in Framingham.

Officials said at least 200 people were injured and about 290 people remained in shelters yesterday, roughly half the number who sought refuge on Wednesday. About 40,000 homes and businesses remained without power through yesterday afternoon.

Patrick noted the heroism of a woman who died while protecting her daughter in West Springfield and said he had a message for Bay State residents who suffered losses.

“To all of those who have been touched by this, who had their lives turned upside down . . . I just want to assure you that you’re not alone,’’ he said.

Most of the damage occurred in fewer than half of the 19 communities hit by the tornadoes, Patrick said. He confined his emergency declaration to those eight or nine towns and cities. He said the 1,000 National Guard troops he ordered to duty spent the day in those communities, helping direct traffic and maintain security, remove debris, conduct well-being checks, and search for survivors in the hardest-hit areas.

He said there were no reports of missing persons.

State and federal officials were tabulating the damage, and Patrick said that total would probably be presented to federal officials in a request for aid within weeks.

He did not provide a figure, although Senator John F. Kerry earlier yesterday estimated that the state’s damages are enormous.

“I don’t think there’s any question that we’re in the tens of millions’’ of dollars in damage, said Kerry, who joined Patrick and US Senator Scott Brown at a morning press conference across the street from the First Church of Monson Congregational, which lost its steeple and was one of at least 77 buildings severely damaged in town.

The town was filled yesterday with the sound of buzz saws and the squeaking of metal gutters blowing in the wind, and it smelled of sawdust, pine, and gasoline. Downed trees covered entire streets.

In West Springfield, local police said Angelica Guerrero, 39, died while huddling over her 15-year-old daughter in the family’s bathtub as the storm destroyed their home. The daughter survived.

Police said a tree killed Sergey Livchin, 23, when it fell and crushed a car in the city.

“If you take a look at the destruction down there, it’s amazing that there weren’t more deaths,’’ said West Springfield Police Chief Thomas Burke. “In the 41 years that I’ve been here, I’ve never seen anything like this.’’

Mayor Ed Gibson said the tornado struck a 2-square-mile area in West Springfield, injuring at least 13 people who were transported to a local hospital. At least 88 buildings were destroyed, officials said.

In Brimfield, crews began removing thousands of felled trees, repairing hundreds of yards of downed power lines, and sifting through dozens of demolished homes.

At the Village Green Family Campground off Route 20, where authorities said a woman died after her mobile home was tossed in the air, some upturned trailers had been crushed by fallen trees.

Lester Twarowski, 50, the campground owner, said all 97 trailers on the campground were destroyed.

At the Brimfield Elementary School, where an emergency shelter had been set up, town residents hugged each other and lamented the destruction of their homes.

Kimberly Ladue, 47, said she had just left home when the storm hit. When she returned yesterday, she was astounded by the devastation.

“It looks like a nuclear holocaust,’’ Ladue said. She said that the 400 acres of forest behind her house are “almost obliterated’’ and that a tree fell through her bedroom window.

Ladue described her home as “unlivable,’’ and she wasn’t sure what to do. She had recently renovated the house and had spent years grooming the gardens. “It’s so devastating,’’ she said. “I’m at a loss. I’m at an absolute loss.’’

Don Johnson, 70, said his three-bedroom Cape was a total loss. He said wind blew the house off its foundation, moving the structure about 7 feet. No one was home at the time.

“Forty-five years I’ve lived there,’’ he said. “Raised . . . three families, grandkids and great grandkids.’’

Phil Carpenter, Brimfield’s director of emergency management, said about 60 people came through the elementary school shelter on Wednesday night.

“There’s some horror stories,’’ he said. He was advising people to call their insurance companies.

In Westfield, Mayor Dan Knapik said about 100 homes suffered damage and at least 10 of them are uninhabitable. He said hundreds of utility poles and trees were down and more than 100 vehicles were damaged.

He said the Munger Hill Elementary School suffered a direct hit and would remain closed indefinitely, because much of its roof and many classrooms were destroyed.

“Compared to other cities, we’re incredibly lucky,’’ he said. “I’m stunned and amazed we didn’t have a loss of life.’’

At a press conference yesterday morning at the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mayor Domenic J. Sarno and other local officials said about 250 residents had sought shelter the night before at the MassMutual Center, and five of the 35 people treated for injuries were in critical condition. A Hampden assistant district attorney suffered a fractured skull when she was hit by flying bricks as she left the Hampden County Hall of Justice.

“What occurred here is unprecedented,’’ Sarno said of Springfield, where at least 35 buildings were lost.

Sergeant John Delaney of the Springfield Police Department said there were eight arrests in Springfield from the time the storm hit through yesterday evening, compared with 30 on an average day.

He said some roads in the East Forest Park neighborhood remained inaccessible yesterday because of fallen trees; hundreds of homes there suffered damage.

In the neighborhood, Jim Graham sat on the steps of what had been the lovingly renovated home where, 24 hours earlier, he and his wife had expected to spend the rest of their lives.

A beer by his side and a cellphone at his ear, Graham, 44, spoke with an insurance adjuster about the next step in a life stripped of all material belongings.

The roof had been ripped off the kitchen of his two-bedroom home. His garage was reduced to splinters, and his street was an obstacle course of uprooted trees that resembled giant match sticks.

“It doesn’t even look like a house; it looks like a war zone,’’ Graham said. “I don’t know whether to cry, scream, or jump up and down.’’

Travis Andersen, Akilah Johnson, and Eric Moskowitz of the Globe staff and Globe correspondent Jenna Duncan contributed to this report. David Abel can be reached at