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Massachusetts towns digging out after deadly tornadoes

SPRINGFIELD, Mass. (AP) - 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 four
people, damaging buildings, uprooting trees and shattering lives.
"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 19 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.
One tornado was dramatically captured on a mounted video camera
as it tore through Springfield, the state's third-largest city. At
the MassMutual Center, a cavernous event facility where seniors
from Wilbraham's Minnechaug Regional High School had gathered in
gowns and tuxedos for prom, the tornado terrified photographers and
students 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 as scheduled.
Gov. Deval Patrick told ABC's "Good Morning America" on
Thursday that considering how quickly the tornadoes formed, he
feels fortunate there weren't more fatalities.
"When I spoke with the mayor of Springfield yesterday, he told
me they had about 10 minutes' warning," Patrick said.
"When you consider how quickly the tornadoes developed and then
touched down, the fact that there wasn't even greater damage and
loss of life is a remarkable thing."
Experts were to fly over the region Thursday to assess damage
from the nation's latest burst of violent weather, while others
planned to analyze video and damage on the ground to determine the
number and strength of the tornadoes, National Weather Service
meteorologist Benjamin Sipprell said.
The storm pulverized or sheared off the tops of roofs on Main
Street in Springfield, a city of more than 150,000 about 90 miles
west of Boston. 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.
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 Wednesday that the death toll was preliminary and
that police and firefighters were going door to door in Springfield
to assure that no one was trapped in damaged buildings.
Members of the state's congressional delegation said they would
seek federal assistance for storm-damaged areas. Sen. Scott Brown
planned a tour Thursday of the hardest-hit spots.
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.
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."
A tornado watch had been issued earlier for much of the East
Coast, including Philadelphia, New York and Boston.
Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno said more than 40 people were
admitted to hospitals in the city. State police said at least five
people were seriously injured and required surgery.
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.
Two people were killed in West Springfield, one in Springfield
and another in Brimfield, according to Patrick, who did not
immediately know the circumstances of the deaths.
Among the injured in Springfield was a retired priest, according
to a spokesman for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Springfield. The
priest was living at St. Michael's Retired Priest Residence, which
was damaged by the tornado.
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.
The storm knocked out power to tens of thousands of customers.
Crews from utilities in Connecticut and New Hampshire were working
Thursday to help restore service.

(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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