Many report looting after tornadoes

By Billy Baker
Globe Staff / June 4, 2011

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SPRINGFIELD — On Wednesday, to protect himself from the tornado he could see coming straight for him, Kevin J. Silk slammed shut the doors to his auto repair shop on Dale Street and herded a dozen neighbors and one police officer into a 10-by-6-foot parts room in the back corner of his concrete garage.

Yesterday, to protect himself and his property, Silk had a baseball bat and a billy club.

In the South End neighborhood here, where two tornadoes an hour apart carved a path of incredible destruction, many survivors say they returned to their storm-damaged homes to find their valuables had been stolen.

Many thefts, residents of this neighborhood just off Main Street in downtown say, occurred just after the first tornado struck when they were evacuated to an emergency shelter because of a gas leak coming from a house that had been tossed from its foundation.

“It’s sad that a storm like this comes and you have to worry about your stuff being stolen,’’ Tim Isham said as he worked on patching up the roof to his home on Winthrop Street, which is leaning off its foundation. “We should be sticking together, not looting against each other.’’

Isham, a married father of four, said that he returned home from the shelter as soon as he heard about looting — before the second tornado had touched down — and found when he got there that someone had already kicked in his neighbor’s door and stolen her XBox video game system.

Across the street from Isham, Delores Mayhew said she caught someone yesterday morning trying to break into her neighbor’s house; the person fled when she called out to them, she said.

On nearby William Street, Yolanda Rivera was helping her friends clear out a house that was ravaged by the tornado; its roof was covered by another that had blown from down the street.

“They stole two air conditioners, some tools, some money,’’ Rivera said as she helped her friends salvage whatever they could from the interior. “The house across the street had all its expensive stuff stolen. It’s crazy, just very sad. There’s like no words for it.’’

Police said they had made three arrests but played down reports of widespread looting, saying that a number of complaints they had investigated turned out to be false alarms.

“Some people think they are seeing looting, but in many cases they’re not,’’ said Police Commissioner William J. Fitchet. “

He emphasized that police had stepped up patrols and that National Guard troops were on the lookout.

In the South End, police prowled the streets questioning anyone carrying any sort of metal after reports of people looting copper.

Later in the day, police shot a man and a woman in the neighborhood after a high-speed chase. Police said the man and woman were being sought in connection with an assault, not because they were suspected of looting. But two members of the Massachusetts National Guard told the Globe that the episode began when they saw the man trying to steal copper from an auto repair shop.

And as South End residents boarded up windows and tried to put lives and homes back in order yesterday, many were concerned about looting that might yet come.

Stephanie Tonelli’s William Street home was remarkably untouched save for the damage to her back door from someone trying to break in. “I’m worried that because my house isn’t damaged, people are going to be thinking, ‘All her TVs must be intact,’ ’’ she said as she stood guard on her front porch.

On Central Street, Yolanda Hernandez and her 9-year-old daughter Stephanie were given a brief window to return to their apartment building to quickly gather some things. They’re staying with dozens of others in a makeshift shelter at Springfield Central High School.

“I’ve got faith that I’m going to find my things right here when we come back,’’ Hernandez said as she dropped some food in for her daughter’s pet fish and frog, and gathered up the family hamster to take to the shelter.

“Can I take my teddy bear?’’ Stephanie said as she emerged from her bedroom carrying a stuffed elephant.

“Yes,’’ her mother said, then went quickly to the bathroom. And there, as she gathered toiletries in her arms, she began suddenly to cry.

“I’m OK now,’’ she said as she looked around her apartment, “but I don’t know what I’ll do if while I’m gone they take what little I have left.’’

Billy Baker can be reached at