- Associated Press - Thursday, June 2, 2011

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 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 three people and injuring about 200.

“I can see the plywood of roofs, and see houses where most of the house is gone,” said Mr. 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 18 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.

Sens. John F. Kerry and Scott P. Brown joined Gov. Deval Patrick on a helicopter tour of the damaged areas, including Springfield, the state’s third-largest city. Mr. Kerry said it looked like a “blast zone” and was confident that federal disaster aid would be made available, particularly because of damage to businesses.

Mr. Patrick said it was unbelievable that so much destruction was caused in such a short period of time.

“You have to see it to believe it,” he said after a tour of Monson, a town of fewer than 10,000 residents near the Connecticut border. “Houses have been lifted up off their foundations and in some cases totally destroyed or moved several feet.”

Authorities were still calculating how many tornadoes hit the area.

Two people were killed in West Springfield and another in Brimfield, authorities said. A Springfield death previously blamed on storms may have been an unrelated heart attack, Mr. Patrick said Thursday. Public health officials said about 200 people sought medical treatment for storm-related injuries.

A death in West Springfield was a woman who used her body to shield her 15-year-old daughter in a bathtub in their apartment, Mr. Patrick said. The daughter survived.

At the MassMutual Center, a cavernous event facility, the tornado terrified photographers amassed for a high school prom 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 that night as scheduled.

The governor declared a state of emergency and called up 1,000 National Guardsmen after the storms.

Massachusetts hasn’t experienced a tornado since 2008, according to the Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla.