40 years ago today, a tornado ripped through West Stockbridge
The sky had turned a very odd shade of green. Barbara Tonini had never seen the sky that color.
And then the noise: Unbelievably loud.
"Like a freight train was coming through, only there were no tracks near us," she recalled.
But perhaps what frightened Barbara Tonini the most was what was happening to the telephone poles. The wind was bending them over. Slowly, inexorably.
"I couldn't believe they didn't just snap," she said.
The poles didn't snap. But Tonini, and her infant son, Christopher, were near the epicenter of what is still known today as the West Stockbridge Tornado.
It was about 3 p.m. on a warm Tuesday afternoon, 40 years ago today. The tornado touched down and ripped through a six-mile long corridor along the western border of West Stockbridge.
Four people were killed. Thirty-three were injured. The Berkshire Truck Plaza was destroyed. The Berkshire Farm for Boys in Canaan, N.Y., suffered heavy damage. Homes in the path of the tornado were almost obliterated.
"The carnage, the destruction, was hard to imagine unless you saw it," said Lawrence Tonini, Barbara Tonini's husband and the town's assistant fire chief at the time. "It took [West Stockbridge resident] Bill Kie's house right out."
The tornado also destroyed the home of Constantine Delmolino, 60, of Dean Hill Road. A rescuer found Delmolino, groaning, under a pile of debris that was formerly his home. Delmolino and his wife, Grace, were home when the twister hit. Both were evacuated to the former Pittsfield General Hospital, where Constantine died from his injuries.
Also killed were two truck drivers at the Plaza and a Brooklyn, N.Y., man who summered in the Berkshires.
It was nature gone berserk: A meteorological Godzilla that trampled everything in its path.
"There was a gentleman at the [Berkshire Truck] Plaza that day, a fellow named Tim Johnson," said Lawrence Tonini. "A really nice man, and a very big, strong guy. Well, he was outside at the truck stop when the tornado hit, and it knocked him over and started rolling him across the yard. He managed to grab onto a flatbed truck as he was going by and he hung on for his life."
James Overmyer, an Eagle bureau chief in South County, was sitting in his office on Main Street in Great Barrington that afternoon when the police scanner began barking.
"We were hearing, ‘High winds at the truck stop, tornado at the truck stop,' " Overmyer recalled. "So I hustled out the door of the bureau and high-tailed it to West Stockbridge."
Overmyer was the first reporter on the scene.
"You couldn't actually get too close to the truck stop by then," he said. "There was a lot of concern about leaking fuel. But it was almost better, because we just started interviewing people that saw it, that were in it."
In all, The Eagle had 13 reporters and photographers on the scene.
"I was there all week," said Overmyer. "It was a lot of follow-up, obviously. But we had people running all over the place.
"The things you remember," said Overmyer in a recent interview. "There were trucks just thrown about [after the tornado]. Big trucks. One of them was wrapped around a tree. And it must have been filled with cottage cheese, or some other dairy product. But I think it was cottage cheese. Anyway, it smelled for days before they cleaned it up."
Tonini recalled local firefighters, police and emergency personnel not getting much sleep for several days.
"It took a few days before everything got back to a semblance of normalcy," he said.
And debris was scattered over a huge swath of the Northeast corridor.
The day after the tornado hit, a check for lunch at the Berkshire Truck Plaza was found in the yard of a Wappinger, Conn., family, about 55 miles away from the plaza.
It was for a cheeseburger and a hot chocolate.
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