At least four people were killed and a number of others were injured in the violent storms that swept across Massachusetts today, which included at least two tornadoes, state officials said today.
Two people were killed in West Springfield, one in Springfield, and one in Brimfield, state officials said.
Governor Deval Patrick said damage had been reported in at least 19 communities, mostly in Central and Western Massachusetts. He declared a state of emergency, saying he was mobilizing up to 1,000 members of the National Guard to help in search and rescue, debris cleanup, and other recovery tasks.
State Police said 33 people were injured in the city of Springfield alone, including five seriously.
Patrick, who held news conferences at the State House and then at the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency bunker in Framingham, said 48,000 customers of National Grid and Western Massachusetts Electric Co. were out of power tonight. No numbers were available from NStar, he said.
Two of the hardest-hit communities were Springfield and the town of Monson, he said.
He said he had recently spoken with Senator Stephen Brewer of Barre, who was on the scene. "He said, you have to see Monson to believe it, and I think he made a reference to the Wizard of Oz, as well," Patrick said.
Patrick said he planned to head to Western Massachusetts tonight. He also said he had asked superintendents in the affected communities to close their schools on Thursday to clear the way for recovery efforts.
There were at least two confirmed tornadoes, Patrick said, one carving a swath from Westfield east to Douglas, and the other, less-powerful, twister, moving from West Springfield to Sturbridge.
State Police spokesman David Procopio said calls began to come in at 4:30 p.m. of a tornado that appeared to touch down in Westfield, then move from Springfield’s downtown area near the North End Bridge into the East Forest Park neighborhood.
The midnight shift of Troop B, which covers Western Massachusetts, was called in early. The State Police also activated search and rescue and K-9 units due to reports of structural damage and vehicle damage in Springfield.
Among the buildings damaged were Springfield's courthouse, he said, while vehicle damage included a tractor-trailer that overturned on the city's Memorial Bridge, which spans the Connecticut River.
State highways are passable in the area but many local roads are blocked by fallen trees, power lines, and other debris. State Police have restricted motorists on Interstate 91 from entering the city, he said.
“We’re prepared to help the police department and fire department do searches of damaged buildings for possible victims,” he said.
He said State Police also responded to vehicles that had apparently been overturned by the storm on Interstate 84 in Sturbridge.
Springfield police last night blocked off a large section of State Street, a main thoroughfare, due to the storm damage. On Maple Street, which is off of State Street, downed trees and large tree limbs lined the path of the apparent tornado. Tow trucks could also be seen pulling damaged vehicles.
Carmen Melendez, 50, a resident of Winthrop Street, said she saw the cloud of debris speeding toward her home when she looked out the window. “I saw a lot of birds. I saw the wind," she said.
Then, she said, "all the glass blew up” on her porch and window. “It was a disaster.”
She said that when the cloud came, she and her handicapped child dropped to the floor and eventually made it to their bathroom. Nobody was hurt. “It came straight at me. I couldn’t do nothing.” She said police evacuated Winthrop Street because of a gas leak. She and her child plan to stay with her son in Holyoke tonight.
Significant damage has been reported, along with sightings of a tornado, in Agawam, Charlton, Monson, Oxford, Palmer, West Springfield, Wilbraham, and Sturbridge, said Sergeant Michael Popovics, another State Police spokesman.
Popovics said a female had been reported hit by lightning in the town of Charlemont.
National Weather Service meteorologist William Babcock said the agency had reviewed webcam footage of the weather in Springfield that was captured by a local TV station. “From what we saw on that, it definitely looked like a tornado,” he said.
Scott MacLeod, the MEMA spokesman, said the operations center was fully staffed tonight, and officials were working to get "rapid assessment" teams on the ground at first light.
He said officials had still not been able to confirm whether there were any fatalities from the storm.
Western Massachusetts Congressman Richard E. Neal issued a statement saying he would tour the area Thursday himself and intended to seek federal assistance.
"The description of the damage is heartbreaking, but I will do everything I can to make the recovery process start immediately," he said.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency has dispatched an incident management assistance team to Agawam, and spokesman Dennis Pinkham said the agency planned to monitor further storm activity throughout the night.
"There's more activity right now in Worcester as we speak," he said.
Pinkham said FEMA's administrator for the New England region, Don Boyce, has just finished an extensive briefings with Governor Deval Patrick and MEMA officials and the agency is standing by to offer blankets, food, water and whatever is needed.
"We're there to support the state and communities with anything they need that we can get," Pinkham said.
FEMA already had a field office set up in Westfield following snow emergencies declared in the region during the winter. The team dispatched to assist with tornado recovery tonight is called an Incident Management Assistance Team, or IMAT.
US Senator John F. Kerry traveled to Springfield tonight to tour the affected areas and assess rescue and recovery efforts. US Senator Scott Brown planned to tour the area on Thursday.
Tornado watches remained in effect for most of the state, in Bristol, Hampden, Norfolk, Worcester, Essex, Hampshire, Plymouth, Franklin, Middlesex, and Suffolk counties until 11 p.m. Weather service radar this evening showed another set of thunderstorms in the Springfield and Worcester area, moving from west to east.
Thunderstorms had swept through Eastern Massachusetts this morning. But that turned out to be only a prelude to the more-violent storms that thundered across the state late this afternoon.
National Weather Service meteorologist William Babcock said the agency would not confirm the number of tornadoes spawned from the storms, but the agency had received at least six reports of separate tornadoes throughout Western Massachusetts.
A survey team was set to investigate today to determine just how many touched down, he said.
Today’s weather is set to be calmer -- breezy, with sunny, nearly cloudless skies and temperatures in the upper 60s to lower 70s, he said.
Donovan Slack of the Globe staff contributed to this report.
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