MONSON, Mass. — The sight of flattened homes, peeled-off roofs and the toppled steeple of a 140-year-old church stunned New Englanders after deadly tornadoes swept through Massachusetts, striking an area of the country that rarely sees such severe twisters.
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The storms, which came with fair warning but still shocked with their intensity, killed at least three people, injured about 200 and wreaked damage in 18 cities and villages across central and western Massachusetts.
"Everything’s gone, and it’s not even about the furniture," WVIT-TV reported Springfield resident Cassandra Cuffey as saying. "I lost important stuff: my grandmother’s ashes. Things that meant something from my heart."
Some 40 people were hospitalized in Springfield and around 250 others displaced by the storm stayed at shelters, Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno said.
Tornadoes are not unheard of in New England — the downtown of Connecticut's largest city was devastated by one last June — so many people heeded warnings. That didn't guarantee their survival; among the dead was a mother who shielded her teenage daughter as they huddled in a bathtub.
But in many cases, doing the right thing — quickly — helped save lives.
Karen Irla, 50, was leaving a market in the picturesque village of Monson when she heard children on their bicycles yelling, "Look at that tornado!"
"I screamed and I screamed and I screamed, and that's why I have no voice today," said Irla, who went against experts' recommendations by getting in her car. She made it to a nearby senior center and waited until the storm passed.
Inside the market, produce manager Frank Calabrese made a quick decision that helped keep customers and employees from coming to harm.
In a move recalling a famous video from the recent deadly tornado in Missouri that documented shoppers' terrifying moments inside a convenience store cooler, Calabrese herded them into a walk-in cooler, where six to eight endless minutes passed while the building shook and windows shattered.
"What else are were going to do?" he said. "We sat inside and waited it out." No one in the store suffered a scratch.
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The storms hit as many people headed home from work Wednesday, paralyzing motorists who could see the twister coming at them.
A fixed television camera caught dramatic images of a debris-filled tunnel cloud crossing the Connecticut River and slamming into Springfield, a working-class city of about 140,000 residents, where it cut a swath of destruction 10 blocks wide in some spots. The city is home to the Basketball Hall of Fame, which was spared damage.Video: Tornado touchdown caught on camera (on this page)
Michael Valentin, 29, said he was eating at a soup kitchen near downtown when he started hearing thunder and went outside.
"All this was chaos," he said. "It was like a mad wind twisting. It was destroying everything. Cars were being smashed against walls. Pieces of wood and trees were flying in the air."
Debbie Perkins, 30, was filling up a small backyard swimming pool for some children when they spotted the funnel. They ran into the home and huddled in the basement.
"The kids, they were all screaming and crying," Perkins said. Unlike many of her neighbors, she escaped without damage to her home.
The Hampden County district attorney, Mark Mastroianni, said he barely escaped injury himself when plate glass windows shattered and blew into his office and a conference room.
"People started to scream, 'Get away from the windows,' and as I was just turning to run, the glass window just came flying in," he said.
The story was repeated in town after town around Springfield. Some of the most severe damage was in Monson, about 15 miles away, where homes were leveled and a historic church was badly damaged.
"This isn't supposed to happen here," Sen. John Kerry said after touring the damage in Monson, usually a quiet mountain hamlet about 90 miles west of Boston.
The toppled steeple of the First Church of Monson — founded in 1762 and rebuilt in 1873 — was a symbol of the heartbreak many residents were feeling. But townspeople were relieved that no one in the town of fewer than 10,000 was killed — and were determined to rebuild.
Monson, population 10,000, was possibly the hardest hit town. Patrick toured neighborhoods there on Thursday, saying homes were lifted off foundations and hurled into trees. He met one family that had just made their last mortgage payment and whose home was destroyed.
The first tornado touched down at about 4:30 p.m. ET in Springfield and then moved east, the National Weather Service said.
A second tornado hit in north Springfield at about 6:20 p.m. ET and then also continued east, authorities said.
Gov. Deval Patrick said he was moved by gestures of goodwill.
A woman in Monson received a phone call from someone in the Boston suburb of Milton — the governor's hometown — who had recovered her checkbook register after the ferocious winds apparently carried it 90 miles.
He also addressed the death of Angelica Guerrero, a West Springfield woman who died while saving her daughter's life by covering her in the bathtub.
"She crawled in on top of her to protect her, but just then, the ceiling collapsed. The daughter survived but the mother did not," he said at a news conference.
"I'm a dad, and I understand a mom or dad would do anything to save their child," Patrick said.
Fabiola Guerrero wept Thursday as she returned to the wreckage, where her sister was trapped for two hours before being rescued.
Guerrero said her mother always said she would die for her daughter. "She was an amazing woman," she said.
Authorities initially believed at least four people died but later determined that a heart attack death in Springfield was likely unrelated to the storms. A man died when a tree struck a van in West Springfield, and another person died in Brimfield, though authorities have not released details.
The governor, who declared a state of emergency allowing officials to sidestep usual regulations to provide quick relief, pledged that the state would throw all its resources behind recovery and that federal disaster assistance would be sought.
"For those who are feeling, quite understandably, that they can't imagine what a better tomorrow would look like, I want to assure that we are working to get to that better tomorrow," he said.
Massachusetts public health officials said about 200 people sought treatment for storm related-injuries.
Dr. Reginald Alouidor, a surgeon heading the trauma teams at Baystate Medical Center in Springfield, said the injured at his hospital ranged in age from 2 to their mid-60s, with many suffering broken bones or other injuries from wind-driven debris.
Seven remained at the hospital Thursday, including a woman whose liver was lacerated when a building collapsed on her.
Police and National Guard troops went door to door in Springfield to check for any residents who were injured or otherwise needed help. The police chief confirmed reports of looting and other crimes, but no arrests were made.Video: Twister turns Western Mass. upside down (on this page)
Tens of thousands remained without power in the region.
Given the extent of damage, Patrick, who joined Kerry and Sen. Scott Brown for an aerial tour of the devastation, said it was remarkable there weren't more deaths.
While two or three tornadoes hit Massachusetts on average every year, they're usually weak and rarely strike heavily populated areas.
That may explain why the twisters caught some people by surprise, said Stephen Frasier, a University of Massachusetts professor who has chased tornadoes across the Great Plains.
"Two things happened: This was bigger than the average tornado that hits Massachusetts that usually just knocks over a tree or something, and of course, it hit a populated area," Frasier said.
Tornado watches and warnings had been posted Wednesday by the National Weather Service and were broadcast by radio and TV stations, "but people just don't react to it here the way they do in other regions of the country," he said.
Most Massachusetts communities also don't have warning sirens like in the South and Plains, where people know exactly what they mean and are trained in grade school on how to react. Where sirens do exist, he said, New Englanders often treat them with curiosity rather than as a nudge to seek shelter.
In 1995, three people were killed by a tornado in the small town of Great Barrington, Mass., along the New York border. Last year's tornado in Bridgeport, Conn., heavily damaged buildings but killed no one.
On June 9, 1953, a monster tornado sliced through Worcester and other central Massachusetts communities, killing 94 people and making it one of the deadliest single tornadoes in U.S. history.
If the National Weather Service agrees Wednesday's three deaths are tornado-related, it would bring the year's U.S. toll to 522 and make this year the deadliest for tornadoes since 1950. The highest recorded toll was 519 in 1953; four deaths from Joplin, Mo., that were added Thursday tied the record. There were deadlier years before 1950, but those counts were based on estimates.
The Associated Press, Reuters, NBC News and msnbc.com staff contributed to this report.