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.
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 a string of 18 cities and villages across central and western Massachusetts.
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.
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.
At Adams Hometown Market in the picturesque village of Monson, 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 freezer, where six to eight endless minutes passed while the building shook and windows shattered.
"What else are we going to do?" he said. "We sat inside and waited it out."
No one in the store suffered a scratch.
"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.