There were no sirens. No one mentioned it on the radio. And this being Massachusetts, few people thought of a tornado when the skies outside Springfield, the state’s third-largest city, turned ominous.

Now, with at least four people dead and hundreds more injured, and upwards of 1,000 National Guard troops joining state police and fire crews in cleaning up a devastated downtown, shock and amazement have gripped the Bay State. One week after Joplin, five weeks after Tuscaloosa, they ask, how could such a thing have happened here?

“People don’t realize that it comes so fast,” said Rabbi Noach Kosofsky, principal of the Lubavitcher Yeshiva Academy, a Chabad-Lubavitch run Jewish day school in nearby Longmeadow. “You don’t think it’s coming, but when you hear of a tornado warning, it’s real.”

Kosofsky was supposed to be in Florida yesterday, but delayed his trip because he wasn’t feeling well. When people started talking of a tornado watch that had been issued for the area that afternoon, he told the driver of a van with 13 students destined for their homes in Northampton and Amherst to hold off on the trip.

“It’s only because of what happened in Joplin that [the idea of a tornado] was on my mind,” explained the rabbi. “And I told the driver to stay here, and we’ll wait it out. Thank G‑d I did, because it could have been a disaster. Thank G‑d I didn’t end up going to Florida.”

Kosofsky was on his way into downtown when the tornado came barreling through the area from the west. It was just before rush hour.

“I had just gotten on the access ramp to the highway, parallel to the Connecticut River. And I looked across the river and saw what looked like smoke rising,” recalled Kosofsky. “I looked further, and now this smoke looked like it was on the other side of the highway.”

He didn’t think much of it, but when Kosofsky got to downtown, a line of cars brought traffic to a near halt. He got off the highway and encountered a scene of horrendous devastation. Trees were uprooted, some blocking streets.

“People were on the street looking bewildered; it had come through just minutes before,” said the rabbi. “Tops of roofs were blown off. Windows were blown out.”

An ominous sunset blankets the sky in western Massachusetts. (Photo: Rusty Clark)
An ominous sunset blankets the sky in western Massachusetts. (Photo: Rusty Clark)

A Rare Event

Meteorologists said that at least two tornadoes attacked central and western Massachusetts Wednesday. According to The Associated Press, on average, the state gets the same number in a year. The last lethal tornado struck in 1995.

“It was obviously an incredible surprise,” Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency spokesman Peter Judge told the news agency. “We’d been monitoring the weather all day and by early afternoon, nobody was overly concerned.”

One quick-thinking mother in West Springfield threw her child in a bathtub and covered the 15-year-old with her body as the storm hit. The child survived, but the mother did not.

Another mother told Fox News that she was at a pre-prom party held in honor of her son when the tornado struck. When she returned home, her house was gone.

The main building of the Harold Grinspoon Foundation, a Jewish philanthropic organization that supports local, national and international causes, was reportedly hit. No one answered repeated calls made to its West Springfield telephone numbers, but staff did answer e-mails.

The Red Cross has been inundated with storm victims and calls from concerned citizens offering help.

“At the moment they need money,” said Kosofsky, who called the Red Cross to offer assistance. “Right now, they don’t want more volunteers.”

At the school – one of few communities to hold classes today – morning announcements focused on the tragedy.

“People are extremely thankful that everyone that we know of is safe. There is a family from our school that is out with electricity, but it’s clear that things could have been much worse,” said Kosofsky. “We talked with the students about the miracles that took place yesterday, and what we can do as a community to help the victims.”