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Bridgeport, Conn., surveys damage after tornado toppled buildings, trees but spared lives

BRIDGEPORT, Conn. (AP) — Residents of Connecticut's largest city counted themselves lucky Friday that no one died in a rare tornado that shredded trees and roofs, took out power lines, collapsed buildings and even swept through a museum dedicated to flamboyant showman P.T. Barnum.

More than 30 people were sent to hospitals, mostly with minor injuries, after the latest blow to a city that has struggled with poverty, crime and a history of political corruption even as it makes some progress with sports stadiums and downtown developments.

"The tornado touched down for just a short period of time, but it will take several weeks, perhaps months to put so many lives and livelihoods back together," said Gov. M. Jodi Rell, who toured the damage Thursday and said the state would pursue federal assistance.

Officials of the National Weather Service confirmed Friday that the storm produced a 100-yard-wide tornado with winds of at least 100 mph that traveled less than a quarter-mile.

Remarkably, injuries were few. Officials at St. Vincent's Medical Center said Friday that they admitted only two people — one for a broken leg and another with an oxygen-level problem. Both are expected to fully recover.

"I think everybody just breathed a deep sigh of relief," Mayor Bill Finch said Friday, estimating damage in the millions of dollars. He also lifted a city curfew and a state of emergency.

Hundreds of bricks shook loose from buildings, trees split in half and crushed cars and a billboard hung precariously several stories up over Main Street. Nine buildings were partially or fully collapsed, including at least three that were brought to their foundations. Rescuers searched the rubble to ensure no one had been inside.

A Catholic high school, a museum dedicated to P.T. Barnum and several other buildings also had roof and window damage in Bridgeport, a former industrial and manufacturing center of about 135,000 residents. Twenty to 30 buildings will have to be inspected, Finch said.

At the Barnum museum, executive director Kathleen Maher said the storm blew out windows and brought in glass shards and other debris that covered exhibits. The debris coated the tiny furniture and a carriage that belonged to circus star Tom Thumb, stripping off some paint, as well as Barnum's chair.

The damage came as the museum geared up for a celebration of Barnum's 200th birthday next month. Maher said that the show would go on, but that part of the museum might remain closed for a while as it assesses the damage.

Barnum "might not have staged the storm, but certainly would have taken the opportunity to work it to his advantage," she said.

The tornado also toppled trees in Washington Park, a historic square that Barnum gave to the city.

"It looked like a jungle," said Eddie Reyes, a restaurant owner who lost about $15,000 worth of food and ice cream after he lost power. "Fifty years, I have never seen anything like this."

The storm also set back an effort to plant hundreds of trees as part of the city's revival; Finch said hundreds were destroyed. Tree limbs and power lines blocked traffic in many areas after winds that topped hurricane force.

The mayor's 28-year-old son, Peter Finch, was charged with stealing a street sign after police said he stopped Thursday to "get a souvenir," then entered a bar after the 5:30 p.m. citywide curfew imposed by his father.

Peter Finch called his arrest "silly" and said his only intention was to take the sign to his father.

Thousands of people remained without power in Connecticut after the fast-moving line of storms, which put homes and businesses in the dark from Pennsylvania to Maine.

Philadelphia-based utility Peco said more than 100,000 customers remained without power Friday. Two men died to the west in Lancaster County when their motorcycle struck a fallen tree. Heavy rains and hail damaged roofs throughout the region and snarled traffic.

After sweeping through Bridgeport, the storm felled trees onto cars and homes and put thousands of people in the dark across the sound on New York's Long Island.

___

Associated Press writers Dave Collins and Stephanie Reitz in Hartford, Conn., contributed to this report.

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