Sean Meehan has worked for 15 years as a Milford firefighter. But he wasn't prepared for what he saw early Thursday morning in Springfield:
Giant trees toppled, telephone poles down, buildings picked up off their foundations, debris piles that used to be garages, identifiable only because a driveway led up to them. In some cases, Meehan recounted, exterior walls had been torn away, giving multi-story buildings the appearance of giant dollhouses.
"It was so overwhelming, the amount of destruction," Meehan said Friday, after returning to Milford. "It was eye-opening."
Meehan and Milford Fire Chief John Touhey were among five employees dispatched to Springfield as part of a s that struck Wednesday afternoon. The local men also included Kevin Tomaso, Michael Curley and Lt. Frank Ferrante. They joined other firefighters from several other MetroWest communities in responding to Springfield as part of a regional task force, coordinated by Touhey.
The firefighters were escorted by a Springfield fire official into several areas of the city, including a densely-populated neighborhood near downtown, and a suburban neighborhood that backed up to Cathedral High School, the city's preeminent Catholic high school, which had a portion of its roof sheared off.
By midnight Wednesday, the men were knocking on doors, trying to take account of the occupants of the structures, and examining debris piles and crushed cars, to determine if anyone needed help. The work continued through Thursday morning. The firefighters were among the first emergency responders to check on the status of residents in more than 100 structures.
The ladder truck they took from Milford, Ladder 1, wasn't able to be taken down most residential streets, Chief Touhey said, each other, the roads were impassable.
The destruction was startling, he and Meehan said. Touhey said in many cases, so many large trees had fallen, that looking down a road, you wouldn't know it was a road except "you would see a red stop sign sticking up."
The city, the third largest in Massachusetts, slightly smaller than Worcester, was struck by the tornado in the late afternoon, when many people were not at home yet from work. Only one person died in Springfield, according to the Massachusetts state police, but two other deaths have been attributed to the tornado in other communities.
The pictures on news stations don't really depict the level of damage, Meehan said.
"Some neighborhoods looked like fields, with little sticks sticking up," he said. Downtown, the men saw bricks from building walls piled in the streets, cars crumpled, and plate glass windows on storefronts shattered. "Everything that could be blown down, was blown down," Meehan said.
Although the firefighters were banging on doors in the middle of the night, Meehan said the residents were universally welcoming. They saw the helmets, understood the firefighters were helping from out-of-town, and assisted the Milford firefighters in accounting for neighbors. One man went out of his way to distribute bottled water to the fire crews, Touhey said.
"They were obviously impacted by what was happening, but for the response they were receiving."