‘Everything was just still’

And then a storm of almost unthinkable fury hit, tearing a quiet little town apart

Karen Bilotti stood in what was left of her Monson home with her son Sam, 7. Karen Bilotti stood in what was left of her Monson home with her son Sam, 7. (Essdras M Suarez/Globe Staff)
By Akilah Johnson
Globe Staff / June 4, 2011

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MONSON — One side of the sky was painted the deepest shade of gray they had ever seen. Birds went quiet; trees stood still. And then ferocious swirls gathered — so fearsome that air suddenly became visible.

The tornado raked a swath through this quintessential New England town where homes sit nestled among 30-foot pine and maple trees. The storm inhaled much of this town and then spit it back out in bricks, branches, and two-by-fours.

In a matter of minutes, the Wednesday storm, which began in the northwest section of town, cut a jagged diagonal to the southeast corner before moving up and over Brimfield Mountain. Left were wrecked homes, a decimated Town Hall, a shattered sense of calm — and, by yesterday, a resolve to be a stronger and better community.

“It looked like an empty movie set,’’ Jennifer Wroblewski, 27, said while standing on the steps of First Church of Monson Congregational. She lives on the outskirts of town, near the border with Palmer on State Avenue, and was home Wednesday about 4:30 p.m. when the face of her beloved Monson, the place she considers the center of her world, changed forever.

“Everything was just still. The sky was still. Even the traffic on the road stopped,’’ Wroblewski said. “It was deathly quiet for like three minutes. That was, of course, after the terrible hailstorm.’’

She looked out her window to see “the clouds swirling over the top of the hill, and you knew something was happening.’’

Her apartment survived unscathed, but when she emerged to survey the damage in the center of town, “I broke down when I saw it. I pay my taxes in Town Hall. I use the library. This place is the center of my universe.’’

The storm roared through town, devouring homes as it moved along Paradise Lake and Ely roads to Main Street, where it knocked steeples off churches, felled trees along what some call Millionaire’s Mile — a section of Main Street filled with Victorian homes once owned by wealthy mill owners in the 1800s — and blew the police station’s communication tower into the parking lot and ripped the roof off Town Hall.

Jerry Girard had been home from work for only a few minutes Wednesday when he heard unusual sounds on the roof. Girard, who lives in a light gray Victorian on Main Street, had just let Sarge in from what used to be the German shepherd’s galvanized steel pen, which is now nothing more than a heap of crumpled metal, when the strange rhythm began to play on the shingles.

“I didn’t know what the heck it was,’’ Girard said, taking a break from lugging the remnants of a 60-foot pine tree that once stood in his front yard to the curb. Only half the trunk now remains erect. “When I looked out the second-story window, I saw the proverbial golf-sized hail. I ran around shutting all the windows and gathering all the animals to go to the basement, and by the time I did that, it was over.’’

The tornado battered his house, breaking several windows and prying the roof free from support beams in several places. His yard, once filled with magnificent 200-year-old trees, was littered with their branches and pieces. The exposed roots of a toppled maple uprooted part of a stone wall. “And you know something?’’ he said. “When you hear a falling tree, you can hear cracking and popping, but I didn’t hear any of it.’’

But his pink azalea bush remains full of flowers. Pointing at it, Girard said: “That just makes it that more surreal.’’

For Town Administrator Gretchen E. Neggers, it’s strange to hear the constantly ringing phones inside the shattered Town Hall. “I know it’s you all asking what should I do,’’ Neggers told a crowd of more than 500 gathered at a community meeting yesterday.

“The town offices took a direct hit from the storm, and it’s a total loss,’’ she said. Critical records from the 250-year-old town’s history remained trapped inside, and critical offices, such as the building and health departments, came to a standstill. Fire-rescue teams did not.

Fire Chief George Robichaud said rescue crews have searched 236 town structures, of which “we consider 45 a total loss or even missing in some cases.’’

But beyond the structural damage, the storm injured several people who suffered broken bones and cuts. And there was what the town considers a storm-related fatality. Stress caused by the storm exacerbated a woman’s preexisting medical condition and, Robichaud said, “within 24 hours, the individual did pass away.’’

Town members said her family home on East Hill Road, owned by her son, was destroyed by the storm. Nothing remains but a mound of rubble.

Michael Roescher’s home used to be at 8 Washington St., almost directly behind Town Hall, and it too is now nothing more than debris. Like too many of his neighbors, including those on Bethany Road and Stewart Avenue — streets also in the storm’s path — Roescher must sort through splintering two-by-fours for the vestiges of the life he built.

He was out on the back patio watching the weather with his daughter when the storm hit. There was no rain or wind, he said, just the sky split into night and day. If he looked to the right, the sky was dark. To the left, it was sunny. He went inside to look at the news and find out where the storm was — but didn’t really need to do so.

His daughter “started screaming: It’s in the backyard!’’ he said. “All the trees were torn apart, and I said to her: basement.’’

He made it halfway down the stairs before the house imploded. He was knocked to the ground and lost sight of his daughter, who had managed to crawl to the back of the basement near the freezer.

Roescher clung on to what was his chimney, saying: “It felt like something was trying to tug me by my feet, and I opened my eyes and I saw all of our stuff being sucked into the sky.’’

Some of his files landed three houses down in the neighbor’s yard. His six cats remain missing. He and his family spent much of yesterday searching for them, passing out fliers and digging through the debris, hoping to find, if nothing else, their bodies.

“Honestly,’’ he said, “I’d rather find a deceased pet than leave them to be thrown out with the trash.’’