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

BRIDGEPORT, Conn. (AP) — It looked, the mayor said, as if Godzilla had come in and ripped off roofs, knocked down buildings, toppled trees and shattered windows. A day after a rare tornado shattered the heart of Connecticut's largest city, residents counted themselves lucky that no one was killed.

Bridgeport assessed the damage Friday after storms that swept the Northeast on Thursday saved their most powerful wallop for the coastal Connecticut city, which has struggled with poverty, crime and political corruption while making progress with sports stadiums and downtown developments.

"This was a very powerful storm," said Mayor Bill Finch, who estimated damage in the millions of dollars. "We're just going to have to get through this like we have to get through everything."

Bridgeport resident Edward Beardsley said that the storm's noise hurt his ears and that the wind's force sent him to the other end of his house.

"It was a noise I never heard before," he said. "... Everything was pitch black and going in a circle down the road."

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, serious injuries were few. A little more than 30 people were treated at hospitals, and most injuries were minor. 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," Finch said Friday during an update on the storm damage at which he announced that a city curfew and state of emergency had been lifted.

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.

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 same fast-moving system knocked out power to tens thousands of customers from Maine to Pennsylvania.

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.

Bridgeport resident Jacqueline Arroyo said she saw a black cloud and ran inside to her third-floor apartment, where a window exploded. Trees were blown so ferociously they appeared to be coming out of the ground, and people were screaming, she said.

"All the wind started coming inside the house. I heard 'boom, boom!'" she said. "It was so fast but terrifying."

Sen. Joe Lieberman visited Bridgeport on Friday to look at the damage and said he would try to help the city get federal disaster aid. Gov. M. Jodi Rell had visited the day before to check the damage.

It was a miracle that no one died, Fire Chief Brian Rooney said.

"Anybody that was in the path of that storm would have been in big trouble," he said.

The United Illuminating Co. reported nearly 24,000 customers without power in the Bridgeport and New Haven areas after the storms. About 15,700 customers remained without power Friday morning, including about 8,100 in Bridgeport.

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.


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