By STEPHEN SINGER
SPRINGFIELD, Mass. — 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 three people and injuring about 200.
“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 18 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.
Sens. John Kerry and Scott Brown joined Gov. Deval Patrick on a helicopter tour of the damaged areas, including Springfield, the state’s third-largest city. Kerry said it looked like a “blast zone” and was confident that federal disaster aid would be made available, particularly because of damage to businesses.
Patrick said it was unbelievable that so much destruction was caused in such a short period of time.
“You have to see it to believe it,” he said after a tour of Monson, a town of fewer than 10,000 residents near the Connecticut border. “Houses have been lifted up off their foundations and in some cases totally destroyed or moved several feet.”
Authorities were still calculating how many tornadoes hit the area.
Two people were killed in West Springfield and another in Brimfield, authorities said. A Springfield death previously blamed on storms may have been an unrelated heart attack, Patrick said Thursday. Public health officials said about 200 people sought medical treatment for storm-related injuries.
The death in West Springfield was a woman who used her body to shield her 15-year-old daughter in a bathtub in their apartment, Patrick said. The daughter survived.
One tornado was dramatically captured on a mounted video camera as it tore through Springfield, a city of more than 150,000 about 90 miles west of Boston.
At the MassMutual Center, a cavernous event facility, the tornado terrified photographers amassed for a high school prom 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 that night as scheduled.
The storm pulverized or sheared off the tops of roofs on Main Street in Springfield. 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.
Among the injured in Springfield was an assistant district attorney who was struck by debris as she left her office and walked across a parking lot, Hampden District Attorney Mark Mastroianni said. He did not identify her but said she is expected to survive.
Mastroianni said he and other staff members narrowly escaped injury when plate glass windows shattered and blew into his office. He heard screams to get away from the windows, and he and the other workers ran away just in time.
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 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.
Springfield’s Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame was not damaged in the storm, and its parking lot was being used as a state police command post.
Experts planned to assess damage by air and land Thursday to determine the number and strength of the tornadoes, National Weather Service meteorologist Benjamin Sipprell said.
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.”
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.
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.
Associated Press writers Russell Contreras, Bob Salsberg, Jay Lindsay, Sylvia Wingfield, Rodrique Ngowi and Steve LeBlanc in Boston, and Kristi Eaton in Oklahoma City contributed to this report.