Wednesday, June 1, 2011 started just like any other day in Central Massachusetts. People woke up and readied themselves for the day that was about to unfold in front of them. People went about their lives as normal not knowing that latter on that day lives would change forever.
Returning to Dudley from Sturbridge a bone chilling announcement was made over the Worcester County fire radio system. The voice said that Central Massachusetts was under a tornado watch until later that day. Now we have had such watches before but there was something in the voice that told me this time it was serious.
As the afternoon continued, and we watched the news for any sign of what was to come, the sky continued to darken. Perhaps it would just be a thunder storm and all would be well. Then, right there on the television news, one of the most horrifying sites I had even seen before, a tornado forming right on the Connecticut River in Springfield. I am somewhat of a weather geek so I was fascinated by what I saw as the river actually changed direction as the tornado passed over and slammed into the bridge ten continued east out of the frame of the camera.
Town after town between Springfield and Charlton started to report “Tornado on the ground.” This was becoming real.
Members of the fire department started to arrive at the station some out of curiosity and some out of the desire to be ready when whatever was going to happen, happens. Then the words I never thought I would hear were broadcast over the radio, the tornado had hit Southbridge and there was significant damage. I felt helpless as my first duty was to the town where I was working as the Chief Fire Administrator.
We were glued to the radio and television and then the alarm bell rang out and an engine company was requested to head to Southbridge. More fire fighters arrived at the station as the sky darkened, it was not over.
Eventually I ended up in Southbridge, first stopping by the Church to make sure all was well and saying a little prayer for those who would have been affected by this storm. The neighbors were out on the street as the power was out and everyone was looking toward the sky. Would there be another one? What was going to happen next?
I arrived on Worcester Street, what would become known as ground zero, and I could not believe my eyes. I have never seen this kind of destruction up close. Sure I watched video on television of town out west but this is Massachusetts, we have snow storms and hurricanes but tornadoes? Then over the radio came the words that another one was on the ground and heading our way. We sought shelter wherever we could find it until the danger passed.
It’s hard to put into words the feelings that you experience when watching your neighbors climb out of their homes that have just been destroyed. The feeling of happiness for every life that emerged from the rubble that was once their home and the feeling of sadness for lives lost and those that will be changed forever.
I was there not in my role as chief administrator in the Town of Dudley but as a fire chaplain and a member of the local clergy. On the front of my helmet, on the shield that is adorned with symbols of the fire service stands the cross of Jesus Christ. They symbol of my Christian faith and for many a symbol of hope. As I helped people climb out, they would ask me why this happened and I had no answer for them. I felt helpless that I could not answer this basic question for them as their lives were crumbling around them. All any of us can do is be there for our neighbors when they are in need.
As the night continued word came that four people had lost their lives. The story of the young mother who lost her life protecting her child, and the other stories touched us all but we were also thankful that the death toll was not higher. Survivors told their stories of how they were able to get to the basement just seconds before the twister hit their house and others who rode it out in their cars. No one expected this.
So here we are one year later. Today memorial services will take place in many of the affected towns as the victims try and put their lives back together. It is important to remember those who lost their lives, those whose lives have changed, those who came to help, and the ability of humans to recover and reclaim their lives. I am always amazed by the ability of people to come back from some of the worst experiences, and although changed, continue on.
The effects of June 1, 2011 directly and indirectly affected many people and the memory of that day will continue for years to come. The landscape of our area and of our lives has changed and will continue to be a reminder of that day.
My prayer today is for all of those who endured that dark day. For the people who lost their lives, the people who lost their homes, the people who responded and who helped in anyway and for those who continue to help their neighbors rebuild their lives and their homes. God bless all of you.