SPRINGFIELD, Massachusetts (AP) – Tornadoes roared through Massachusetts on Wednesday, as violent winds caused damage in about two dozen communities, ripping off roofs, uprooting trees, scattering debris and leaving at least four dead throughout the state.
The governor said the death toll was preliminary.
The storm pulverized or sheared off the tops of roofs on Main Street in Springfield, a city of more than 150,000 about 145 kilometers west of Boston. 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.
Gov. Deval Patrick declared a state of emergency and called up 1,000 National Guardsmen after the storms, which brought scenes of devastation recently wreaked in the South and Midwest to a part of the country where such violent weather isn't a way of life.
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.
At least four people were killed from the storms, Patrick said.
Sarno said more than 40 people have been admitted to hospitals in Springfield.
"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.
Around 55,000 customers National Grid, Western Mass. Electric and Unitil were reportedly without power.
One of the tornadoes struck downtown Springfield, the state's third-largest city, in the 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.
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.