Why was I defying the police by screwing around in a disaster area—especially after getting screamed at by a cop? Why was I stepping over downed wires in the street taking pictures of destruction? Because it was my old neighborhood. Because I blog. Therefore I am.
And I’ll do just about anything for my blog. Therefore, I am stupid. But I’m not as stupid as my friend Rob Gostofsky, who drove right into Sixteen Acres Center and snapped photos as the tornado raged in front of him.
The June 1 tornadoes that devastated western Massachusetts, killing four people, included an EF-3 funnel cloud that Rob took two pictures of as he drove from the Eastfield Mall and approached the intersection of Parker Street and Wilbraham Road:
In disbelief, he watched it cross Parker Street, not far from Sixteen Acres Center:
He proceeded to take a right on Wilbraham Road. He was visiting his mother, who lives off Plumtree Road.
“You didn’t have any thoughts about driving in the opposite direction on Parker after you saw that funnel cloud?” I asked.
“No, I could see that it was going the other way,” he replied.
Jesus. I don’t think I would have been as confident about the apparent path of a tornado. Anyway, his mother was safe. But the twister didn’t miss her street by much.
In this often-viewed footage, here is the main tornado churning across the Connecticut River into Springfield.
The photo below, taken by someone else near Louis and Clark Drug Store, captures the tornado going behind the Western New England College campus.
These people captured video of the twister going through Veterans Golf Course:
Here is the path of the first tornado through Springfield:
I was able to beat that tornado home to Wilbraham after work, driving through a hailstorm and listening to a voice on the Emergency Broadcast System telling listeners that we should head to the nearest basement. When I got home, we did just that after turning on the news and discovering that the twister touched down in Springfield and was going east.
Then the power went out. When it seemed safe enough to go upstairs, where we could take advantage of more daylight, my wife’s brother called and told us to go back downstairs, because another tornado might be heading our way.
He was right: an EF-1 funnel went through Wilbraham at around 6:30 p.m. We were lucky enough to be between the routes of both tornadoes, and fortunate enough not to have brought our family to a planned 5:15 p.m. event at Springfield College, a campus that got nailed shortly after the first tornado crossed the Connecticut River at 4:45 p.m.
Two days later I wanted to go for a mountain bike ride and check out some of the damage in Sixteen Acres firsthand, so I threw my bike in the back of my car. My first thought—a naïve one—was to park in the Evangelical Covenant Church lot at the corner of Bradley and Plumtree Roads, but as I headed down Bradley, I knew this wasn’t going to happen. In stop-and-go traffic, I was heading right into the tornado’s path of destruction. So I started taking pictures:
The cop directing traffic at the corner of Bradley and Plumtree frowned upon seeing me obviously taking phone photos while I was driving, but, hell, the guys in front of me and behind me were doing the same thing.
There was no way I could park in the church lot, because police had closed Plumtree, so I kept going straight and took a right at Burt Road/South Branch Parkway, with the “brilliant” idea of parking at the trailhead of the long-abandoned stretch of the South Branch Parkway that had been reclaimed by woods over the past few decades. As I detailed in my last blog post, I knew there was a clear wooded path that would bring me to the East Forest Park side of the Parkway, and my goal was to continue from there.
WAS is the operative word here, because the trail was now impassible with fallen trees.
I headed back to my car and drove back north on Bradley, passing by the same cop, who recognized my car and barked, “Find another route!” in my open driver’s side window. Yes, I was adding to the unnecessary volume of traffic. Yes, I was gawking. Yes, I was taking photos. Guilty as charged.
Continuing north on Bradley, I took more pictures of the damage, including trees bent at strange angles:
Others still had a ways to go in their cleanup. The kid below sat on the trunk of his tree and gawked back at the gawkers.
Plan B was to park in Western New England College’s Southwood Hall lot and ride my bike through the WNEC woods to Plumtree, using the path that was clear a month earlier. I got on my bike and started pedaling, and as I neared the Plumtree Road end of the woods, I noticed a lot more fallen trees that I had to carry my bike over.
Then I reached Evergreen Road, where I saw a whole section of the WNEC woods felled; trees stripped into fringes:
Evergreen was a mess. I pedaled to the end of Evergreen and took in the scene on Plumtree Road. Crews had done a good job of clearing off the road of trees by Friday morning, enough to leave one lane for Western Mass Electric Company trucks, but there were still telephone poles and wires down:
I kept picking up my bike and stepping over the wires, knowing full well that that the power was cut. But still…they looked menacing, and I wasn’t about to fuck with them.
Every once in a while I came upon an awestruck pedestrian:
The Cancer House of Hope had a tree lying on its roof:
The Cancer House of Hope was as far west on Plumtree that I wanted to travel, because the cop at the intersection was eyeing me suspiciously. If he had walked over and recognized me as the guy he had chastened earlier, there would have been hell to pay. I turned around.
A tree in front of the gym of the old Ursuline Academy, my old grammar and junior high school:
I rode completely around the school and amazingly found no significant damage. From the back of Ursuline I could see that the lot of the Evangelical Covenant Church was being used as a parking area for Western Mass Electric trucks:
This house was spared, but its fence wasn’t…
…and a port-a-potty from somewhere was tossed into the woods.
Veterans Golf Course has seen better days:
Actually, now’s the opportunity to get away from my lousy phone photos and plunk in a couple of aerial photos of Veterans Golf Course:
Check out the path of downed trees next to Veterans between Bass Pond and the old quarry pond:
Back to my ride. Yep, that’s my bike, sitting in the middle of Plumtree, in a photo taken at the end of Veterans.
It was time to stop gawking and wrap up my bike trip. But a couple of days later I was taking pictures again, this time because Gostofsky told me that he had visited the Gate of Heaven Cemetery on Tinkham Road, and miraculously no trees had fallen on his family plot. The same could not be said for the area around my father’s grave. “He might have gotten buried again, Bob—under trees,” Rob warned. So I headed over.
The cemetery and the houses around it had certainly taken a beating:
Sure enough, there were tons of limbs over my father’s grave:
Unbelievably, I was able to gingerly step over some trunks and move apart some branches to find his grave marker, with the Veterans Day flag toppled next to it. But was I positive I had found the right spot.
Yes indeed. My Dad, a World War II Navy veteran, whose destroyer escort U.S.S. Coffman had picked up a battle star after sinking German submarine U-548 off the coast of Virginia on April 30, 1945, deserved to have his grave cleared and the flag righted as soon as possible.
But moving all that debris would have required a lot of manpower. I knew the cemetery staff would eventually get to it. However, the least I could do was put his flag back up. So that’s what I did.
So long, dad. Miss ya.
So, as a post-script to this Twisted Sister post, one I had no idea I would write until it dawned on me that I couldn’t ignore such an event on the blog, here is a photo of a tornado-damaged house and yard:
I snapped it coming back from my ill-fated attempt to traverse the above-stated long-abandoned stretch of the South Branch Parkway. I didn’t want to be seen taking the photo, so I waited until I got in my car. You can see tarp on the roof and a downed tree near the bottom of the picture, above my steering wheel. I felt bad. I felt like a slimy gawker—until I read in the Springfield Republican that a guy who lives at the house was arrested a little more than a week later for stealing power lines, cable TV and telephone lines, and copper wiring from a home on the East Forest Park side of South Branch Parkway.
Well, there’s only one kind of person worse than a disaster sightseer: a looter. Especially one who knows full well the havoc a tornado can bring because his own home was battered by it.
No, looting is definitely not cool. Besides, you could get seriously hurt that way, as a looting victim on Spruce Street in Six Corners let trespassers know:
I was driving through East Forest Park the other day, doing some additional gawking, and believe me, that neighborhood got hit much harder. Although the twister ravaged Veterans Golf Course, I can only imagine the carnage that would have taken place if the land occupied by the golf course comprised a densely settled residential neighborhood instead of grass and trees.
Just imagine, as a child, swimming in Bass Pond in the 1970s. Could you ever comprehend, in your wildest dreams, a tornado sweeping through the pond, flattening trees and sucking up water, on a 39-mile murderous march from Westfield to Charlton? It would have been inconceivable. It was also unimaginable on May 31, 2011. But the next day it was a stark and surreal reality.
So, I’m declaring the Springfield area a tornado free zone from now on. One twisted twister is enough for a lifetime. Two tornadoes are highly unlikely. As the song goes, it can’t happen here, could it?
No! Not in Springfield!
Do you have any recollections of the tornado? Post a comment!