SPRINGFIELD, Mass. – Tornadoes roared through Massachusetts on Wednesday, including its third-largest city, where debris slammed into buildings and startled workers and residents who were heading out for the evening commute.
Authorities say two people died in West Springfield, one in Springfield and another in Brimfield.
Gov. Deval Patrick says the death toll was preliminary. He declared a state of emergency and called up 1,000 National Guardsmen after the storms.
Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno says more than 40 people have been admitted to hospitals in the city. Around 55,000 utility customers were reportedly without power.
State police say they also have reports of tornadoes in Agawam, Charlton, Monson, Oxford, West Springfield, Westfield, Wilbraham and Sturbridge.
The storm pulverized or sheared off the tops of roofs on Main Street in Springfield, a city of more than 150,000. A mounted video camera captured dramatic footage of a debris-filled funnel as it swept into downtown from the west, then crossed the Connecticut River.
The Rev. Bob Marrone of The First Church of Monson said the storm cleared a view he's never seen across the valley where the town sits.
"I can see the plywood of roofs, and see houses where most of the house is gone," said Marrone, whose church's steeple was knocked down. "The road that runs up in front of my house ... There's so many trees down, it's completely impassable."
Thomas Walsh, a spokesman for Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno, told The Associated Press he was looking out his City Hall window around 4:30 p.m. when he saw the funnel.
"I could see this massive cloud of debris floating around in a circular, cylindrical fashion," he said.
"It looked like birds were flying out of the trees and it was rubble," said Martha Vachon of Photography by Duval of Palmer, who was photographing the Minnechaug Regional High School prom in downtown Springfield, which went on as planned.
One of the tornadoes struck downtown Springfield, one of the state's largest cities, on Wednesday afternoon, frightening workers and residents.
Margaret Alexander, 40, of Springfield, said she found sanctuary in a closet in her apartment during the tornado. After the storm passed she went outside and headed to the Mass Mutual Center on the advice of neighbors.
She and 15 family members -- a sister, daughter, two grand-daughters and the family dog Sasha in a crate -- were at the cavernous makeshift emergency shelter. "I'm just happy to be with my family and that everyone is safe," Alexander said.
Jane Albert, spokeswoman Baystate Medical Center in Springfield, said the hospital was treating 10 seriously injured patients in its trauma unit and an unknown but significant number of less seriously hurt people.
"There is search and rescue going on throughout the region now, so we expect more patients," she said.
Among the injured in Springfield was a retired priest, according to a spokesman for the Roman Catholic archdiocese of Springfield. The priest was living at St. Michael's Retired Priest Residence, which was damaged by the apparent tornado.
The storm hit as workers were beginning to leave for the evening commute home. A tractor-trailer overturned during the storm on the Memorial Bridge leading to West Springfield.
State police said in addition to Springfield they have reports of tornadoes in the communities of Agawam, Charlton, Monson, Oxford, West Springfield, Westfield, Wilbraham and Sturbridge.
Since 1950, Massachusetts has had about two tornadoes per year, and there had been none since 2008, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said. The last deadly tornado in the state occurred on May 29, 1995, when three people were killed, NOAA said.
The state police Special Emergency Response Team was activated and its members were searching some damaged structures to make sure there are no people trapped inside.
Police closed some highway ramps leading into Springfield.
Upstairs at the Mass Mutual Center in downtown Springfield high school seniors graduating Minnechaug Regional High School in Wilbraham this Friday were arriving for their prom.
Jola Wnuk said she almost didn't come because of the weather. But her mother persuaded her to go. "She said it's once in a lifetime," Wnuk said.
Photographers setting up tables at the Mass Mutual Center said they had a frightening view of the tornado just outside the center's ceiling-to-floor windows.
The storm hit Springfield after a tornado watch was issued for much of the East Coast, including Philadelphia, New York and Boston.
State police said there was heavy damage in spots and troopers were prepared to do house-to-house searches if needed.
Bob Pashko, of West Springfield, said he was coming 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," said Pashko, 50. "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," Pashko said.
In Sturbridge, in central Massachusetts, a half-mile section of Main Street was shut down after a tornado apparently touched down, damaging homes and felling trees, according to town administrator Shaun Suhoski.
Suhoski said some people suffered "cuts, scrapes, bruises," though no serious injuries were immediately reported. But he said emergency crews were cleaning up after the storm blew trees into houses and severely damaged telephone poles and rooftops. A shelter has been set up in town at Tantasqua Senior Regional High School.
"It was a pretty heavy assault from the storm system and we're trying to dig out and assess it right now," Suhoski said.
Sen. John Kerry, D-Massachusetts, was scheduled late Wednesday to join Patrick in a planned tour of tornado damage. "Our immediate priority is the safety of families in every area affected or still threatened by this horrific disaster," said Kerry in a statement.
Patrick said there was extensive damage in Hampden County, especially to homes and other structures. He said there were a number of live wires down. The state has opened shelters for those whose homes were damaged or who need a place to stay.
Patrick repeated his call for superintendents in the 19 affected communities to cancel school Thursday. He said state employees in the those areas are also urged to stay home and off the roads to give cleanup crews a chance to work.
The governor also said he had preliminary reports of some looting in downtown Springfield. He said that looting tapered off as heavy rains set in. The State Police is securing the area. No looting arrests were reported.
Patrick said the damage has hit home for him and Lt. Gov. Timothy Murray. Murray is the former mayor of Worcester and Patrick owns a home in western Massachusetts.
"These are my neighbors and my friends, too; the lieutenant governor's as well," Patrick said. "We're worried about our friends and neighbors, our fellow citizens in western Massachusetts who have been affected by this terrible tragedy."
Massachusetts hasn't experienced a tornado since 2008, according to the Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla.
The last deadly tornado in the state was on May 29, 1995. Three people were killed by the storm in the town of Great Barrington, Mass., along the New York state border.
On June 9, 1953, the deadliest recorded tornado in Massachusetts history cut a swath of destruction through the central part of the state, including the city of Worcester, killing 94 people and injuring hundreds.