Thursday, June 2, 2011

Tornado in Springfield Mass: Photographs and words on the devastation.

I must apologize before you continue reading. This article was intended to be published using a blogging software that failed numerous times while trying to get the post published. This post was written the night of June 1st and the morning of June 2nd. Since then I have been back to the scene two more times and have also traveled to Wilbraham and Monson Mass. You can view a comprehensive gallery of images by visiting this link:

Photographs of Tornado Aftermath

On June 1st, like most days, my Droid chimed in with an alert from Facebook. It was my friend and owner of Western Ma Storm Chasers. He was sent me a message to warn me to be on alert. This was the kind of message that you do not want to ignore or not heed without a moment of consideration. I did not have time to respond and went about my day. Shortly after leaving a family members house I found myself driving to the studio to get my camera and some other gear to head out and capture some of the storm. I thought I would be capturing some lightning, like I had done so many times last summer, but I couldn't have been more wrong. I sent Chris from Storm Chasers a text saying I was on my way out. I received a response after grabbing my camera, ending a phone call, and making my way to my car. Granby, was what it read. So, taking his tip I headed towards Granby. 

The next call I received would alter the course of my afternoon and evening. Answering, it was a family member. There was an extended level of anxiety in her voice as she explained my grandmother called. "12 minutes ago a tornado touched down in Springfield. Are you in Springfield?" I was not. I was about 15 miles out of Springfield. I turned around and made my way back. Knowing that you are approaching an area that has just been afflicted by devastation is an ominous feeling. I had, at the time, no idea what I would be heading towards, driving into, or just how badly the storm had ravaged the city. Within minutes I was approaching the highway. I knew I had only a few more minutes until I would reach the city. I began to wonder where the tornado had come down, where should I go to find its path? What am I going to witness. Expecting the worst would allow me to enter the scene with less fear and be more resilient in capturing the aftermath.

The closer I came to an exit, the more I scanned the landscape to find debris and search for signs of damage. An ambulance was in front of me as we entered a dense patch of traffic. Their lights went on and they cut right on to the exit. I followed a head of them to see where they would be heading. That is where I saw the first tree down. More trees became visible, as they lined the street in a disarray that would command one to question what had just happened, if they other wise did not know. I threw my blinker one, jerked the car into the fire lane, just above the road that comes in across the Memorial Bridge from West Springfield, MA. I jumped out and made a my first photographs from atop the high way.

I got back into my car, kept the blinker on and sped down the fire lane to the first exit coming up. Finding the first parking lot, I sped past trees, branches, and debris from signs and light poles. I knew at that point, I was in the wake of a serious and very dangerous tornado. Parking, I grabbed my camera, some memory cards, spare batteries and headed out. I surveyed the damage that I was closest to. I just knew that there was something else to see. I didnt see any over turned cars, burning buildings, or much worse, (not to be described here). I set out to capture the destruction. I knew I would be down there, amongst the debris and devastation for a while, I was still trying to grapple with the fact this had occurred.

I navigated the landscape, crossing over branches, avoiding broken glass, dodging street signs and other building materials. The noise of car tires passing by created a lasting popping sound, as they slowly rolled over branches, leaves, and occasionally pieces of glass that were unavoidable. People on cellphones were frantically speaking to the receiver of the call, either acting as a compassionate and sympathetic ear to a scared voice speaking to them, or the voice of terror as they try and locate a loved one to validate their safety and where about s. The abundant amount of cellphone usage jammed up the lines, as I had trouble making calls. Witnesses, survivors, spectators, police, fire, EMT's and other safety works filled the streets. As I approached Main St, it had not yet been closed off. It was not known at the time that a gas leak was filling the block in a cloud of invisible disaster, awaiting to erupt in flames. As I maneuvered the crowds of people, I heard voices of terror, bragging their survival, anger, sounds of sadness and pain. There was a lot of confusions as groups of people walked back and forth, not knowing where to to and what to do. A young woman in charge of a group of students, youths, or troubled teens, (it was unclear as to which they were, as the group hesitated and gave sever resistance), demanded they follow her away from the area that was being leaked by gas, as a woman had lit a cigaret. With sheer disregard for herself and the well-being of the individuals around her, she began to smoke her cigaret and the young woman corralled her youths together and made for safe place.

A few of the above displayed images capture a sense of destruction. Some capture the human activity surrounding the event as it continued to unfold. One man, being told repeatedly by police officers not to duck under the yellow tape, did so any ways. Resisting the officer, he was unwilling and uncooperatively forced back from his position. Samuels, an establishment I had visited a few times was in the midsts of the chaos and the corner for a street closure. Police from both State and local units began to vacate the area, forcing people back for their safety. I say forcing, as people converged on the worst areas, not just as residents, tenants, building owners, but some as looters and spectators. Above you will find an image of young man attempting to enter a nail salon. Coerced back by his friends, he did not fully enter the building. Probably a smart move, as the police surrounded the area in a number that out-weighed the civilians onlooking.

Sitting in a wheel chair, a woman is sympathetically cared for as she embraces a man in an intimate connection, seeking comfort from the trauma she just survived. Every 3rd or 4th car occupying the streets or passing by suffered some sort of chaotic damage. At one point a woman in a white Toyota Camry nearly backed into me. With her rear window blown out, windshield cracked and a trunk she had to force closed, I was amazed she was so willing to drive away from the scene. The interior of a gym designed to train boxers, had its roof torn off. The ring, a bag, some treadmills, and clunky metal fans were exposed. The fan blades still spun with a threatening rattle, as electricity was still powering the building.

I made my way back over to Main st, where police increased their procedures for evacuating the area. "A second storm is coming, get to the Mass Mutual Center!" shouted the police. People ignored the warnings, to which they found an even greater resistance than their choice to continue forward. Officers had to eject a young man off his bicycle as he tried to pedal past them. His comeback to the officer, "I didnt have breaks." "Well that is your fault, now get out of here!" Responded the officer as he gave him a shove to be on his way. It was clear, very clear, that area was not to be entered and they didnt want people there, for their own safety. I made my way back as well, knowing I could not be as close any more as I would like to be.

Journalists, reporters, businessmen, men, women, children, animals, students going to prom, all found themselves being safely ushered into the Mass Mutual Center for their safety. It was an arena of high emotions as people walked around, disoriented and confused. The American Red Cross was still not yet on scene to provide assistance. I was stopped and questioned as to what I was doing with my camera. It is not at my discretion to fully explain the exchanged dialog. Moments later I vacated the building at my own liberty. I needed to get back to process the images and email them out. I needed some gas for my car and to hydrate myself. After jogging back to my car, I found a moment of salvation in sitting down. Now, now was a stressful moment, as I absolutely needed to refuel my car. This lead me to West Springfield, where, I had no idea, they had also been affected. There were down trees everywhere and it took me two gas stations and another city to find a source of fuel and liquid sustenance. A quick pit stop and I was on my way back to the studio. I got back, processed the images, sent them out in an email and made my way back to the scene.

Like the setting of a Hollywood film, that scene where an intense and dramatic action have taken place, Springfield looms in an apocalyptic emotion that resonates with anyone who walks on the tattered sidewalks. Around each corner, a new setting from the same movie, a scene from a tornado taking ownership over a city, each setting is devoid of its casting star, but in replacement are workers, safety personnel, police, fire and the National Guard.I spent nearly two hours walking around. Through it all, I was able to capture the anarchy that was dropped on Springfield. Just before I got back to my car, I made this last photograph. Crown Fried Chicken remained open through almost every moment of the events that took place on this typical Wednesday. As I was leaving though, the bars were starting to open up, but they had not been open while the most sever action was taking place.

This is a recount of my experience yesterday. (June 1st) As a professional photographer, I aimed to capture the scene to share and document. All photographs are copyright and can not be used without permission of myself. Please contact me if you would like to use any or all images within this article.

Day II Thursday June 2nd

On Thursday June 2nd I went out again to document the aftermath. This time I was accompanied by one of my friends, a professional shooter and colleague of sorts. We started in Springfield, walking block by block seeing the destruction in a new light. The clarity of the rain and storms had passed, leaving behind broken homes, tattered buildings, cars beyond repair, memories, sadness, tears, and a wake of destruction that will take some time to clean up. Each photograph I made both on the 1st and 2nd has words that correlate with it, but because of the software crashing, I can not just drop images in and expect them to sit properly in relation to the words. This severely reduces my initial text that I had written for the second piece, the second day documenting the chaotic clean up. I did find that sometimes one image couldn't convey the space or the sense of destruction that was incurred upon the city. Within the above linked gallery you will find a series of panorama photographs that convey a much greater sense of landscape and exhibit a more compelling and emotionally engaging sense how the city was left after the tornado passed.

I was also very interested in the human presence within the destroyed landscape. Hundreds of people convened upon the streets. Cell phones, psp gaming systems, laptops, digital cameras, point and shot cameras, any device that could record an image or video was being touted about. The devastating moment that had passed, left behind not only carnage, but the new need to witness capture what had happened. As many people as there were out with their cameras, there was almost that many media outlets on location doing live feeds. It was more than a surreal experience to walk through the streets of such a disaster. Occasionally a familiar face would surface in the crowd as we made our way through the streets.

As bad as Springfield is, in terms of destruction, other towns such as Wilbraham were hit just as bad, if not worse. We took a drive up and found just as much chaos as in Springfield. From viewing the link, you will be able to see just how bad it was. I am not sure if I will be out again tomorrow, or if I will wait a few days for the landscape to alter more as the clean up and building demos continue.

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