SPRINGFIELD, Mass. (AP) — The Rev. Bob Marrone was pained to see the steeple of his 137-year-old church shattered and strewn on the grass in the central Massachusetts town of Monson, yet he knows he’s more fortunate than some of his neighbors who lost their homes after tornadoes tore through the state, killing at least four people, damaging buildings, uprooting trees and shattering lives.
“I can see the plywood of roofs, and see houses where most of the house is gone,” said Marrone, pastor of The First Church of Monson. “The road that runs up in front of my house … There’s so many trees down, it’s completely impassable.”
Residents of 19 communities in central and western Massachusetts woke to widespread damage Thursday, a day after at least two late-afternoon tornadoes shocked emergency officials with their suddenness and violence and caused the state’s first tornado-related deaths in 16 years.
One tornado was dramatically captured on a mounted video camera as it tore through Springfield, the state’s third-largest city. At the MassMutual Center, a cavernous event facility where seniors from Wilbraham’s Minnechaug Regional High School had gathered in gowns and tuxedos for prom, the tornado terrified photographers and students as it whirled outside the floor-to-ceiling windows.
“It looked like birds were flying out of the trees and it was rubble,” said Martha Vachon, of Photography by Duval of Palmer. The prom went on as scheduled.
Gov. Deval Patrick told ABC’s “Good Morning America” on Thursday that considering how quickly the tornadoes formed, he feels fortunate there weren’t more fatalities.
“When I spoke with the mayor of Springfield yesterday, he told me they had about 10 minutes’ warning,” Patrick said.
“When you consider how quickly the tornadoes developed and then touched down, the fact that there wasn’t even greater damage and loss of life is a remarkable thing.”
Experts were to fly over the region Thursday to assess damage from the nation’s latest burst of violent weather, while others planned to analyze video and damage on the ground to determine the number and strength of the tornadoes, National Weather Service meteorologist Benjamin Sipprell said.
The storm pulverized or sheared off the tops of roofs on Main Street in Springfield, a city of more than 150,000 about 90 miles west of Boston. A debris-filled funnel swept into downtown from the west, then swirled across the Connecticut River.
“Everything started shaking. The whole building was shaking,” said Shonda Lopez, who was at home when the tornado struck before dinner time.
Lopez’s sister, Margaret Alexander, hid in a closet in her apartment during the storm. She and 15 family members, including a daughter, two granddaughters and the family dog, Sasha, in a crate later went to the MassMutual Center, which was converted into an emergency shelter.
The governor declared a state of emergency and called up 1,000 National Guardsmen after the storms, which brought scenes of devastation more familiar in the South and Midwest to a part of the country where such violent weather isn’t a way of life.
Patrick said Wednesday that the death toll was preliminary and that police and firefighters were going door to door in Springfield to assure that no one was trapped in damaged buildings.
Members of the state’s congressional delegation said they would seek federal assistance for storm-damaged areas. Sen. Scott Brown planned a tour Thursday of the hardest-hit spots.
Patrick said there was extensive damage in Hampden County, especially to homes and other structures. He asked superintendents in the 19 affected communities to cancel school Thursday and told nonessential state employees in counties impacted by the storms to stay home.
Massachusetts hasn’t experienced a tornado since 2008, according to the Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla. The last killer tornado in Massachusetts was on May 29, 1995, when three people died in Great Barrington, a town along the New York state border. The state’s deadliest recorded tornado on June 9, 1953, killed 94 people in the Worcester area.
The state averages about two tornadoes per year. Severe thunderstorms are not unusual, but strong tornadoes ripping a path through cities the size of Springfield are, said Peter Judge of the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency.
“It was obviously an incredible surprise,” Judge said. “We’d been monitoring the weather all day and by early afternoon nobody was overly concerned.”
A tornado watch had been issued earlier for much of the East Coast, including Philadelphia, New York and Boston.
Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno said more than 40 people were admitted to hospitals in the city. State police said at least five people were seriously injured and required surgery.
The storm hit as workers were starting the evening commute home. Police closed some highway ramps leading into Springfield.
In Sturbridge, at the junction of the Massachusetts Turnpike and Interstate 84, a half-mile section of Main Street was shut down after a tornado damaged homes and felled trees, according to town administrator Shaun Suhoski.
Two people were killed in West Springfield, one in Springfield and another in Brimfield, according to Patrick, who did not immediately know the circumstances of the deaths.
Among the injured in Springfield was a retired priest, according to a spokesman for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Springfield. The priest was living at St. Michael’s Retired Priest Residence, which was damaged by the tornado.
Bob Pashko, of West Springfield, said he was returning from his doctor’s office when the storm started and he went to a downtown bar in Springfield to wait for a ride.
“The next thing you know, the TV says a tornado hit the railroad bridge in West Springfield,” Pashko said. “It’s the baddest I’ve seen.”
At the bar, Pashko said, the owner told people to get away from the window as patrons saw the storm on TV.
“To see it live on TV when I’m five football fields away is better than being outside,” the 50-year-old Pashko said.
The storm knocked out power to tens of thousands of customers. Crews from utilities in Connecticut and New Hampshire were working Thursday to help restore service.