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Rare twisters stun MA survivors

First tornado fatality in more than 60 years for New England state as survivors assess damages

BY JOHN PAPE | June 3, 2011

Massachusetts remained under a state of emergency Thursday after the state was hit by a rare tornado outbreak that left four dead and more than 200 injured.

They were the first tornado deaths in the state in more than 60 years.

In all, as many as 19 different communities sustained damage as the storm front moved across the state late Wednesday afternoon, according to Mass. Gov. Deval Patrick.

Patrick declared a state of emergency Wednesday evening, only hours after the storm system tore though the central and western parts of the state. In response to the disaster declaration, the National Guard called up approximately 1,000 troops to assist in rescue and response efforts.

Patrick also pledged to bring whatever state resources to bear necessary to ensure the safety of Massachusetts residents.

The governor described the damage as “extensive” and said some reports of looting had been received. Initial damage was estimated at more than $100 million in the Springfield area alone.

Patrick said a preliminary assessment found that at least two tornadoes touched down. The first and most powerful of the two moved from the community of Westfield, just west of Springfield, eastward into the city of Douglas. The second, slightly less-powerful tornado cut a path from West Springfield to Sturbridge.

Hardest hit area was Springfield, the state’s third-largest city, where at last two people died when a tornado formed over the Connecticut River and moved through the central part of the city. Dramatic images of the tornado as it took shape over the river were captured by surveillance cameras.

One of the fatalities was a woman who died using her body to shield her 15-year-old daughter in a bathtub. The girl survived, according to the Springfield Fire Department.

A third fatality was reported in Springfield during the storm, but authorities are checking to see if the death was directly related to the tornado or if the victim died of a heart attack. Five others were reported to be in critical condition at area hospitals as a result of storm injuries.

The fourth death was reported in Monson, a town of less than 10,000 people near the Connecticut state line.

Monson resident Heather Dickinson said she rode out the storm from her front porch, not immediately realizing a tornado was moving through the community. Like most who witness a tornado, Dickinson described the noise as a “freight train sound.”

“We didn’t realize that it was a tornado until it was too late,” she said.

Dickinson said he estimated 10 20 homes were “completely gone,” along with heavy damage to numerous others. Additionally, town hall, several businesses and a pair of churches were damaged. Additionally, a local supermarket was described as “completely wiped out,” while cars were tossed around in the parking lot.

One of the churches hit by the twister was the historic 137-year-old First Church of Monson. The church lost its steeple in the storm.

The Rev. Bob Marrone said the damage was repairable and he was more concerned for the many nearby houses that sustained severe damage.

“I can look around and see roofs and entire houses gone. The trees have been stripped bare, many of them knocked down entirely,” Marrone said. “I only hope and pray the human toll is not too great.”

Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno closed city hall and all public schools as the city began the clean-up process.

Police Commissioner William J. Fitchet said the city was “in the stabilization phase” and the search for storm victims was ongoing.

“We’re confident that we’ve been successful (in the search) but there is a possibility there are some people still under the debris,” Fitchet said.

Deputy Fire Chief Joseph Conant provided a similar assessment. He said there were no reports of missing people, but firefighters and other rescue personnel were conducting a secondary search of damaged areas “just to be certain.”

Conant said the tornado cut a swath of damage as wide as 10 blocks in some areas.

Dennis Pinkham, external affairs officer with the Boston regional office of FEMA said a team had been deployed to Springfield to assess the damage.

“We're working closely with the state emergency management agency to determine if they have any needs they can't meet that we can help with,” Pinkham said.

In addition, a Red Cross assessment team will be combing through the neighborhood to determine the amount of aid needed. Also, the Red Cross Safe and Well website was being used to track those who have been displaced by storm damage in the Springfield area.

The Safe and Well website is an emergency communication tool where those affected by disasters can register on the site and post messages confirming they are safe. Loved ones can then conduct a search on the site to view the posted messages.

Those without Internet access were urged to call the city’s 311 call center and operators would enter the information on their behalf. Registration computers were also set up at shelter locations in the city.

Springfield resident Jimmy Moscone spent the night sheltered at a local Catholic church after the storm blew out a wall of his apartment near downtown. Moscone said he expected to spend at least one more night in the shelter while his landlord makes temporary repairs.

“I was lucky in a lot of ways, I guess. I lost a few things my TV, my stereo and some odds and ends but they can all be replaced. I’m OK, my keepsakes seem to be alright,” Moscone said. “I bumped my knee a little and had to sleep on a cot, but a lot of people lost everything some even lost their lives All in all, I’m doing pretty well, but I wouldn’t want to test my luck any more.”

Moscone joked he even “came out ahead” after he was befriended by a small dog that ended up homeless because of the storm.

“I was sitting outside, just getting some fresh air, when this little guy came up. He was shaking and scared, but otherwise he seems fine,” Moscone said. “I fed him some of my sandwich, got him some water and now we’re best friends. I guess we’re partners now.”

When asked what he was going to call his new canine companion, Moscone laughed and said he would give the pup the same name as another dog that had a famous encounter with a tornado.

“I’m already calling him Toto,” Moscone said.

While not unheard-of, tornadoes are rare in Massachusetts. The last tornado confirmed in the state was 16 years ago.

The last tornado fatality reported in Massachusetts was in 1950.

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