By Jess Bidgood
June 2, 2011
BOSTON — At least four individuals were killed as rare, violent storms tore through Massachusetts Wednesday evening. The thunderstorms spawned at least two tornadoes, which cut paths through Springfield, West Springfield, Brimfield and surrounding areas.
Speaking to reporters, Gov. Deval Patrick said at least 19 communities were affected by the tornadoes. He had spoken with state Sen. Stephen Brewer, who represents Monson. He compared the damage in town to that in The Wizard of Oz, and said, “You’d have to see it to believe it.”
Patrick declared a state of emergency in Massachusetts and called 1,000 National Guard troops into action to aid in search, rescue and cleanup operations. The troops joined FEMA agents already on the ground in some affected areas.
The storms overturned cars, carried debris for miles, ripped roofs off of some structures and collapsed others, with the worst damage seen in Springfield and Monson. By early Thursday morning, 33 people were reported injured in Springfield alone.
"We're worried about our friends and neighbors, our fellow citizens in western Massachusetts who have been affected by this terrible tragedy," Patrick said.
It’s damage rarely seen in New England. “For people who are used to seeing blizzard and small hurricanes, it was just stunning, jaw-dropping. A lot of people were speechless,” said Shane Lashway, a Williamsburg resident who was working at Big Y in Southampton when he first heard about the tornado warnings.
Lashway and his father wanted to see what had happened in Springfield, so they grabbed a camera and arrived downtown shortly after the day’s first tornado passed through the city.
They walked through a scene of destruction, starting near the MassMutual Center on Springfield’s Main Street. There were several ambulances out front. They stopped to talk to two men in business suits who said they were on the sixth floor of a building during the tornado. They could see debris flying above their heads.
“Then we came to a couple parking lots, filled with cars, sporadically, and not a single one was without damage. There was trees on some of them, there was windows blown out on almost all of them,” Lashway said. “There was people coming out of buildings in suits and well-dressed people just kind of shuffling out with snow brushes and brooms, not really knowing what to do, just brushing the stuff off of their vehicles like it was snow.”
Nearby, Lashway saw a building with bricks torn out of its side, and more snow-like brick-dust everywhere. But that’s not all he saw.
“We actually found a bloody rag, and it was pretty wild to see that people had actually been physically hurt in this, just took it to a whole new level. And there was medical supplies strewn all over the ground,” Lashway said.
Lashway neared the center of the storm’s damage.
“We found a playground with trees just strewn over the structures, there was a building with one side of its roof just totally destroyed and that wall just collapsed. There was an auto shop with the doors just ripped off and all of the cars in the parking lot just destroyed,” Lashway said.
By then, it was after 7:30, and Springfield was under a new tornado warning. He and his dad decided to get out. “As we were leaving the rain was just coming down in buckets and the sky was dark. It seemed like it was like 2 in the morning, it was pitch black,” Lashway said.
Meteorologists say the tornado that hit Springfield could be one of the longest-lasting tornadoes in Massachusetts history. On Thursday, crews will begin the long process of cleaning up that city and the other communities affected by the historic storms.
This article was updated on June 2 to reflect the following correction: The original version mistakenly attributed the Wizard of Oz comparison in Monson to the mayor of Monson
Sign-up for WGBH News updates, WGBH promotions, and previews of what's coming up on WGBH TV.