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Massachusetts governor: Tornadoes caused 'extraordinary' destruction

By the CNN Wire Staff
  • Report: A mother was killed protecting her daughter
  • The Red Cross says hundreds of people are in shelters
  • 4 people were killed throughout the state and about 200 were injured, officials say
  • Kerry: "I have never seen this kind of damage and devastation in Massachusetts"

Editor's note: If you have photos or videos from the storms, please share them with CNN iReport. For more on this story, visit CNN affiliate WCVB.

(CNN) -- State officials pledged to help western Massachusetts residents rebuild Thursday, a day after at least two tornadoes tore through the region.

"There was an extraordinary amount of destruction caused by these tornadoes, and yet it is remarkable that we've had four confirmed fatalities ... and not more," Gov. Deval Patrick told reporters.

Officials said about 200 people in western and central Massachusetts went to hospitals with injuries sustained in the storms, which struck shortly after 4 p.m. Wednesday in and around Springfield, about 90 miles west of Boston.

Patrick and other Massachusetts politicians spoke in front of a church in downtown Monson, where a tornado ripped off the steeple and sent it crashing to the ground.

No one was injured when the steeple fell, U.S. Sen. John Kerry noted, calling it one of the many "fortuitous" aspects of the devastating storm.

"But for being at work, somebody would have been in their basement and crushed to death. ... There are a lot of 'but fors' in this, and I think all of us are really grateful for that," he said.

But officials also recounted tragic stories Thursday of those who died when the tornadoes struck.

A 39-year-old mother in Springfield was killed as she laid on top of her daughter in the bathtub, shielding her from the storm, CNN affiliate WCVB reported.

Massachusetts hit by tornadoes
Tornado passes by camera
Injuries reported in Mass. tornadoes

"The house came down. The daughter lived and the poor mother didn't make it," West Springfield Police Chief Thomas Burke told WCVB.

Nearby, 23-year-old Sergey Livchin died when a tree fell on the car he was sitting in, WCVB reported.

"I heard somebody was hit by a tree. When I found out it was my brother, it was like the ground disappeared beneath me," his sister Irina Livchin told WCVB.

Patrick and Kerry said officials touring some of the most heavily damaged areas saw significant damage: homes split in half, a flattened house whose owners had just sent in their final mortgage payment, a staggering row of sheered-off treetops that stretched for 15 miles.

The magnitude and sweep of the storm were surprising, officials said.

"In 45 years in public service I have never seen this kind of damage and devastation in Massachusetts," Kerry said.

Patrick said someone found the checkbook register of a woman who lived in Monson, one of the hardest-hit areas, in Milton, more than 80 miles away.

He told WCVB that the woman recounted the story to him as she sat on the front step of her home -- the only thing remaining after the storm.

"We've got a real mess on our hands here, but we are all in this together," he said.

More than 400 people were staying at shelters statewide -- mostly in the Springfield area, said Craig Cooper of the American Red Cross.

"The devastation is not on the broad scale (seen in) Joplin, but the degree of damage and homes damage are just as severe. The disaster is just as real. We have seen some significant devastation. The way that has affected the families involved is very profound," he said.

On Thursday, rescue workers went building-to-building searching for survivors. No one had been reported missing by Thursday afternoon, said Peter Judge, a spokesman for the state's emergency management agency.

Damage assessment teams that included National Guard troops were still surveying the area, he said.

Officials were investigating reports that at least two more tornadoes had touched down in and around Springfield, which is the third-largest city in Massachusetts.

As many as 19 communities reported tornado damage, officials said. At least one person was killed in Springfield, two in nearby West Springfield and one in Brimfield, about 20 miles east, Judge said.

The governor declared a statewide emergency Wednesday as the storm system that spawned the tornadoes moved east, prompting storm watches all the way to the Atlantic Coast. By Thursday, that state of emergency had been reduced to four heavily impacted counties, Judge said.

Veronica Davidovich saw an ominous, dark cloud form in the sky Wednesday as she sat in her car at a bank drive-thru in Westfield.

"It was really strange. There was a thickness in the air, like it shouldn't be happening," she said. "It looked like volcanic ash was just dropping. And I looked at the (bank teller) and said, 'That ain't right.'"

At J.T.'s Sports Pub in Springfield, owner Keith Makarowski said he and 10 or so patrons initially went outside to watch the darkening skies, but then retreated as the storm blew into downtown.

"There was a ton of debris flying around, lots of roof shingles and random siding," Makarowski said.

Several century-old buildings were damaged -- "roofs torn off, facades ravaged, trees uprooted," he said.

Residents were being warned to stay off the streets, many of which were impassable because of downed trees and power lines, overturned cars and debris from damaged and destroyed buildings.

About 40,000 people across the state remained without power by Thursday afternoon after the storms downed power lines and blew transformers, Judge said.

Hard-hit areas might not have electricity until the end of the week, said Sandra Ahearn, a spokeswoman for Western Massachusetts Electric Co.

The damage came amid a wave of heavy thunderstorms that moved through the Northeast on Wednesday.

Though not as tornado-prone as much of the Midwest or the South, Massachusetts has averaged two to three twisters per year since 1950, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

In 1953, a massive tornado that struck Worcester and nearby towns killed 90 people, according to NOAA.

The last tornado to hit the state was in 2008.

CNN's Catherine E. Shoichet, Jennifer Westhoven, Anna Gonzalez, Matt Smith, Leigh Remizowski, Julia Talanova and Sean Morris contributed to this report.