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Tornado effects still felt at Cathedral

6/2/2012

SPRINGFIELD, Mass. -- Friday marks a significant anniversary, but there are no ceremonies planned.

On June 1, 2011, an EF3 tornado ravaged western and central Massachusetts, cutting a 39-mile path of destruction, of which remnants are still seen today. One of the hardest-affected areas was the East Forest Park neighborhood of Springfield, where Springfield Cathedral High School resides. The school took a direct hit, causing damage in the millions of dollars that has still not been repaired a year later.

Cathedral still stands, albeit barely. The countless boarded-up windows, crumbled walls and tarps that cover the numerous holes in the roof serve as a vivid reminder of how powerful a punch this building absorbed.

That June day will live in infamy for the residents of this community whose lives have been drastically altered. Memories of that dark afternoon are perpetually embedded into their collective minds and souls. That morning, folks awoke to bright, sunny skies. A chance of thunderstorms had been forecast for later in the day. However, no one could have prepared for what was coming.

By midday, with the heat index rising gradually, Doppler Radar had indicated a few thunderstorm cells materializing off to the west in the Berkshire Mountains -- nothing to be concerned with at the time. At 4:30 p.m., the National Weather Service in Taunton had issued a tornado warning for western Massachusetts as those cells started expanding and strengthening. Thirty minutes later, news agencies across the state were reporting a funnel cloud touching down in Westfield. The tornado, considered a rarity in New England, remained on the ground and was rapidly intensifying as it moved swiftly in an easterly track toward Springfield. With virtually no warning, the tornado blasted through a section of West Springfield before crossing over the Connecticut River and slamming into downtown Springfield with wind speeds topping 160 miles per hour.

The tornado continued eastward, heading directly toward Cathedral High School. After hitting a vacant dormitory and ripping up a few hundred trees at nearby Springfield College, the twister took aim for the high school. The storm would continue to plod onward, wreaking havoc through several communities in Hamden and Worcester counties. Lasting just over three hours, the tornado would finally disperse in Charlton. In its wake, three people were killed, countless injured, hundreds of homes and business destroyed and thousands of trees either sheared off or uprooted. Damage costs exceeded $200 million.

Due to the severity of damage to Cathedral High School and its abutting property, which included several athletic fields, newly appointed athletic director Joe Hegarty received a baptism by fire as he was forced to scramble throughout the remainder of the summer to find alternative sites for his teams to play their home games for the following seasons. Luckily for him, a couple of local high schools, Chicopee Comp and Sci-Tech, came to his aid, allowing the Panthers use of their facilities for football, soccer, basketball, lacrosse and track.

"The entire year has been a transportation and facilities nightmare," says Hegarty. "It's been tough on our kids, but not once have they ever complained. They just want to play."

While Cathedral High School was able to dodge a major headache in finding temporary venues, the despondency of what occurred one year ago is still etched into people's minds.

"It was an eye-opener for sure," says hockey and baseball standout Frank Crinella, who will play both sports at Merrimack College next season. "To see how fast your life and others' lives can change in a matter of minutes is truly unbelievable. We were practicing over at our baseball field in Forest Park that afternoon [a 10-minute drive from the school] and had no idea what was happening around us.

"Thinking back on it now, if that tornado had gone a little more in another direction, it might have hit us directly at the baseball field and all of us might have been killed. It's a scary thought."

Hegarty said once tornado alerts were posted that afternoon he made a decision to cancel all after-school activities. The baseball team, however, still wanted to practice as it prepared for postseason play. The team felt it could get a quick one in before any of the forecasted thunderstorms appeared. When the team arrived at Forest Park, things looked relatively calm.

"During practice, I remember that it never rained," recalls eighth-year Panthers baseball coach Pat Moriarty. "It wasn't that bad out at all. We could see dark clouds moving fast to the north of us, but that was it. Nonetheless, we moved pretty quickly through practice but had no idea what was taking place elsewhere. After all that had happened, one thing that always comes to mind first for me is thanking God that more people weren't killed or injured."

Moriarty, along with Hegarty and several baseball team members, live within walking distance of Cathedral. It wasn't long after the tornado had barreled through that they realized what had transpired in their attempts to get back to their homes.

"I was in West Springfield at the time, inside a Costco," says Hegarty. "It just missed us there, and when I got outside, the storm had already moved on and it was sunny. I didn't think much of it at the time. But heading back on the highway and once I got into Springfield, you could see where the tornado had gone right through the downtown area and right up toward the school. I remember getting a phone call from my father telling me it had hit Cathedral. I lived close by and figured my house was hit too. I couldn't drive up there because of all the damage on the roads, so I had to walk home.

"Once I got home, I saw that my house was fine, but I heard that a second tornado might be coming. So my wife, a friend and I headed for the basement."

That second tornado never materialized, but Hegarty realized some students were still at the high school waiting to be picked up. Upon arriving at the school a short time later, he learned that several students, along with a few faculty members and parents, after seeing the tornado heading in their direction, ran for cover inside the high school gymnasium. Some hid behind bleachers, while others locked arms on the floor until the worst was over. After several agonizing seconds, the tornado moved on.

Miraculously, everyone inside was unharmed even though a portion of the gymnasium roof had been torn off.

When the tornado struck the Cathedral High School neighborhood, Moriarty said he had two children, ages 6 and 7 at the time, at home with a babysitter. His wife, Michelle, was desperately attempting to get home from her job in another part of Springfield, but cordoned off streets prevented her from doing so. When Moriarty saw the affected region, he tried to call home, but cell service was not working at the time, so neither he nor his wife had any way of knowing if their children or the babysitter were safe. When he finally made it home, after being continuously re-routed, he discovered both of his children and the babysitter were OK, just a little frightened. The tornado had missed his house by a block.

Later that evening, Moriarty walked several miles, flashlight in hand due to a citywide blackout, to meet his wife and escort her home.

"We were walking over downed power lines and trees, just walking past total destruction," he says. "I will never forget that."

In the aftermath of the tornado's devastation, the last thing on anyone's mind was athletics. While the season was over for most of the Panthers' spring teams, it still was alive for baseball and boys' lacrosse, which qualified for district play. While the baseball team had all of its equipment safely stored at its Forest Park facility, the lacrosse team wasn't as fortunate.

Most of the team's equipment and uniforms were housed inside the school. All was lost. The team had to borrow equipment and uniforms from Suffield (Conn.) Academy. Many wondered if the lacrosse team would even be able to partake in the postseason tournament with no equipment.

"We didn't hesitate for a moment," says coach Daryl deVillier. "We had to play that game. Our coaching staff and I immediately started calling places to get our team equipped. Our kids were committed to finish the season. The key thing being we didn't quit and were able to play our last game. Even though we lost [to West Springfield 10-4], we played our last game ending a very successful season."

Once the season was complete, deVillier and his assistants started making inquiries in an effort to rebuild the program.

"We contacted companies and organizations that might have programs, grants or charitable foundations that might be able to help us get back on the field," deVillier says.

Reebok, U.S. Lacrosse, Warrior and Lightning Wear were among the organizations that came through in assisting the program.

"What I find amazing is the generosity of people," says deVillier. "People are willing to help without so much as wanting anything in return."

DeVillier, like everyone in these parts, says the memories of last year continue to plague his mind. With practice canceled that day, deVillier was at home during the time the tornado hit and learned about it on television.

"I called my assistant coach Matt Perry, who basically outran the funnel cloud," he says. "I'll never forget his words, 'Coach, it's all gone. Cathedral is gone.'''

Like deVillier, Moriarty, a Cathedral grad, was no longer playing the role of coach. He had to don the hat of counselor as well.

"Thankfully we had a couple of days of practice, which were more like mental-health practices than physical ones," says Moriarty, who contacted all of his players later that evening to make sure everyone was all right. "When we got together a couple of days later, the first thing we needed to do was talk about the things that had happened. We couldn't just go back out there and say, 'OK, let's get back to baseball.' We needed to share our experiences and make sure everyone was OK with them, their families and getting rides. It was all about safety and family first and baseball much later."

The baseball team didn't last long in the Division 1 Western Massachusetts tournament, bounced in the quarterfinal round by Westfield 2-1. Like the lacrosse team, you could certainly understand them not going any further considering what they had to overcome. No matter how much they tried to make you believe the tornado wasn't in their heads, everyone knew this team was not 100 percent mentally focused on baseball.

The baseball players who returned this season banded together and made a promise to one another to make this year's campaign something special. No longer were they just representing their high school. There was plenty more at stake now. The Panthers managed to exceed all expectations by going 18-2. They are the No. 1 team in Western Massachusetts and are ranked No. 2 overall in the ESPNBoston.com Top 25. There are many who feel this program has the talent to make a serious run at a state title.

"We feel like we are not only playing for our school but are playing for an entire community now," Moriarty says. "The tornado certainly brought us all closer together and has built a tremendous bond within the team. The players' hard work, determination and spirit has proven that there is no obstacle that can't be overcome."

DeVillier echoes those sentiments.

"Since that day going forward, our message has been simple -- to let our kids know that they need to remember the kindness of others and to keep our program and Cathedral going," says deVillier, whose club qualified for the playoffs again this season. "We represent this terrific school for what it is. People need to know that this school lost a building only. It didn't lose academic excellence, spirit, tradition and the fight that Cathedral is known for."

In the days after the tornado, with no high school to call home, Cathedral administrators made the decision to cancel all classes for the final two weeks of the academic calendar. But another resolution needed to be made. Where do you relocate a student population of 350-plus for the following school year?

A closed-down elementary school in Wilbraham, approximately 20 minutes from the high school, now serves as a temporary home for faculty and students. The lease with Memorial Elementary School runs through December 2013 at an annual cost of $350,000, paid for by the Diocese of Springfield. Even though a year has passed, there is still no timetable as to when anyone will be allowed to return to their beloved high school.

"It took a little while for things to set in," says Mike Krupczak, a senior first baseman/pitcher for the Panthers. "You come to the realization that, for us as seniors, you're not going to be able to go back to your high school anymore, which is sort of strange. We can't even get personal items out of our lockers. Everything is still in there."

Because of an ongoing battle between the diocese and its insurance company, decisions on what to do with the crippled structure remain in limbo. The diocese wants to tear the high school down and build a new facility that would cost approximately $70 million, while the insurance company argues that the building can be renovated for a lesser amount of $15 million. Until this issue can be rectified, faculty and students will stay in Wilbraham.

"The insurance company is saying the school can be repaired, but everyone we have had in, including engineers and architects, say there is no way to repair it and it would be too much of an undertaking to do that," Hegarty says. "What the insurance company is offering is for minor repairs only. We need a new school. That's about as plain as I can make it. The problem now is the waiting game being played out by the insurance company."

Whispers have started to surface regarding the possibility of shutting down Cathedral High School altogether if a compromise cannot be reached. Hegarty is quick to point out the likelihood of that happening is remote.

"The powers that be here, along with our strong alumni base, will never let that happen," states Hegarty. "Things have been tough on everyone, but what it has shown is how great our students, staff and parents have been through all of this and how great our school truly is. We are still bringing kids in, and the kids already here are staying. We'll continue to overcome this."

What last year's tornado did was make those who experienced it all the more conscious of the dangers involved.

"It makes you a little more scared anytime you hear about a severe thunderstorm warning now," Panthers sophomore catcher Andrew Noonan says. "You just never know what is going to happen."

Adds senior pitcher Harrison Paige: "Whenever I watch the news and hear of a tornado striking a town, I certainly feel a lot more sympathetic about it now."

For those who stood witness to the seemingly endless number of downed trees, telephone poles and power lines that littered the streets and lawns for days on end following the tornado, June 1 will always be a day of remembrance. As much as people here have tried to move on with their lives, the cognizance of that day will never fade.

"It makes you realize that it is not always other people that this can happen to," says senior infielder Tom Rooke. "When you see it happen, you never sense that it can happen to you. Last year, what that storm did was prove that everyone is equally vulnerable."