Neighbors recall harrowing ordeal

Homes, property severely damaged

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By Bryan Marquard
Globe Staff / June 3, 2011

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WESTFIELD — Wary of tornado news she had been hearing all day, Kelly Prenosil sat in the living room of her Shaker Road home checking weather alerts on her iPad as her husband watched television with their three children, who had just returned from school.

As the sky grew threatening, tornado warnings on the screen made her edgy, bringing to mind the massive destruction in the Midwest.

“Let’s go into the basement, it might come in fast,’’ she told them.

Her husband, Paul, took a last look “and saw the sky open up’’ before joining the family in a windowless storage room as the storm roared past, shearing off decades-old trees near the house.

Minutes later, it ripped a section of roof from Munger Hill Elementary School. “By the grace of God, there were only a few kids left on the property,’’ said Mayor Dan Knapik of Westfield.

It then barreled at some 40 miles an hour toward Springfield, where Deborah Alexander had so little warning that she could only curl in a living room recliner with faded blue upholstery and pray as windows shattered and the tornado tore the second floor off her duplex.

Over three hours Wednesday afternoon and evening, tornados cut a fierce path through Springfield, Monson, Brimfield, and Sturbridge, damaging or leveling scores of buildings and leaving curiously unscathed some houses that remain standing next to heartbreaking destruction.

A few blocks from the Prenosils, Munger Hill Elementary School was nearly empty when the storm hit a little after 4 p.m., tearing a hole in the roof over a kindergarten classroom.

“Just an hour earlier, we would have been in the middle of dismissing 500 kids, and it would have been an absolute disaster,’’ Knapik said, touring the property yesterday afternoon.

As is often the case with tornados, timing was everything as they rolled through Western Massachusetts.

As the tornado departed Westfield heading east, Eugene Alexander Malone of Belchertown had been planning to take his children to Springfield for an afternoon with his mother. He had been procrastinating about the trip when his phone rang.

“She called to tell me the tornado was going to hit Belchertown,’’ he said. “Three minutes later, she called and said the roof was off her house.’’

“I was watching TV,’’ said his mother, Deborah Alexander. “The next thing I knew, I heard wind and breaking glass. I couldn’t even get to my basement.’’

When the storm passed and she climbed out of the recliner she called “my mother’s chair,’’ Alexander was amazed to see a crucifix clinging to its place on the wall, her religious statues still standing in the hall, and her Bibles where she left them in an upstairs bedroom suddenly open to the sky.

“They stayed on the dresser,’’ she said. “There were two of them, and they didn’t move.’’

Skipping across Watershops Pond, the winds slammed down California Avenue, a short dead end off Allen Street, tearing out trees, roots, and chunks of lawns and leaving utility lines hanging neck-high across sidewalks.

“There was literally no warning,’’ said Patrick Murphy, who was watching television as color-coded graphics tracked the storm to the edge of Springfield city limits when he lost power, looked outside, and saw leaves and branches fling past horizontally.

“I was at my window, watching it in the living room,’’ said Brianna Gallucci, who lives up the street. “Then I saw two trees fall on houses and booked it to the basement.’’

Between her home and Murphy’s, the side of one house collapsed and buried a car in the driveway. Most of the houses were relatively untouched, however, because trees that Murphy said were planted about 90 years ago when the neighborhood was built fell mostly in the street.

By about 4:45, the storm had traveled east to Monson, dropping devastating hail as the tornado churned a path through town. Giselle Varney had just raced home from work in Belchertown and was staring at weather reports on television.

“Then I said to my husband, ‘We need to go to the basement.’ ’’

When the shriek of the storm passed, they opened the garage door “and trees were what we saw,’’ she said. “Lots and lots of trees. All I saw was more trees.’’

Gregg Patten was with his wife and three children. “It was our anniversary, and we were cooking dinner,’’ he said. “My wife saw it out the window and yelled, ‘Tornado!’ ’’

They sprinted to the basement and stayed there for about 30 minutes, though he said he sneaked back up to the kitchen when it seemed the wind had slowed to retrieve the lobster anniversary dinner.

In Brimfield, Lester Twarowski, owner of the Village Green Family Campground, looked out the window of his home just before 5 p.m. and watched the approach of a cloud filled with debris that he estimated was a half-mile across.

Several people from the street took refuge in his house, among them a young man and his infant child. Twarowski took them to the basement, along with his mother and daughter. “We got them all inside, and we all cried,’’ he said. “We all hugged.’’

Paul Levesque Jr. was standing outside his trailer in the campground when hail began falling. Seconds later, the area went black, and he ran inside his camper, which started to shake as the storm lifted it about a foot off of the ground.

“Everything in my camper got thrown around and tossed around,’’ he said. “I thought I was dead. I didn’t think I was getting out of there. God bless my grandmother; I think she was watching.’’

Travis Andersen and Akilah Johnson of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Bryan Marquard can be reached at