Tornado victims to be grand marshals


Just after noon on Sunday, as honorary grand marshals of NASCAR's Lenox Industrial Tools 301, Tom Joseph and his family will kick off the action with the motorsports version of "Play Ball" -- "Gentlemen, start your engines." But if they hang around New Hampshire Motor Speedway long enough after the race -- after the winner has been declared and the tens of thousands of racing fans have packed up and pointed their cars for home -- they might, peering into the Sunday twilight at the tailgate debris, see something that looks uncannily familiar. For the vast treeless expanse before them -- the overturned charcoal grills, the heaping piles of trash, the sweeping, empty space -- will look a lot like the Joseph's yard back home in Monson, Mass., after a tornado ripped through town June 1 and destroyed their cars, their house and their sense of a normal life.

Three tornadoes tore through western and central Massachusetts that day, damaging nearly 1,400 buildings, destroying 400 homes and killing three people. The most powerful of the tornadoes began its 39-mile path in Westfield, then raged east through Springfield and headed for Monson.

"It was a normal day," Joseph says of that summer afternoon. "We were planning for my son's graduation week and that night was awards night at the high school. I got home from work around 4:15 and I had heard the weather reports for tornadoes, so we were all keeping an eye to the sky. And then it started to hail."

Joseph's sons Alex (18) and Brian (12) were with him at the house. His wife, Karen, was working in the next town over and his other son, Nick (19), was at the gym.

"The hail seemed kind of odd," Joseph says. "We don't get hail like that in Monson. So I went back inside and looked at the weather again. Then I saw what looked like a tornado coming over the mountain. It didn't look good, so I gathered up the boys and went down to the cellar."

When Joseph and his boys emerged from the basement -- "no more than a minute, minute and a half later," Joseph says -- they couldn't believe what they saw. The top left corner of their Cape-style house was gone. The garage had disappeared. The shed in the backyard had tumbled clear through the back of the house and was now lying on its side by the fridge.

"I had a commercial mower in my kitchen," Joseph says.

The front wall of the house had been torn off, twisted on its axis and dropped in the driveway. A dormer ended up in a neighbor's house across the street. Alex's and Brian's bedroom was gone.

"It was just a fast moving storm that did a lot of damage quick," Joseph says. "It cut its swath and went on its way," leaving the family and their neighbors no choice but to gather together and pick up the pieces. But there in the immediate aftermath, as neighbors and friends emerged from the wreckage ready to help each other out, Joseph says he suddenly realized that everything was going to be OK.

"People just started showing up at my door offering to help," he says. "There were people showing up I'd never even met before. One guy came up with his wife -- I'd never seen either of them before -- and he introduced himself and said, 'I got a chain saw and she's got sandwiches. We're from 10 streets over and we're helping people out.'"

The whole neighborhood was like that, Joseph says. Alex -- president of his class at Monson High School -- gathered up classmates to hand out drinks and clear brush. Joseph's co-workers at Lenox pitched in, organizing tree cutting parties and trash cleanup. "Of all the bad that happened," Joseph says, "there was a lot of good going on, too."

Then, on his second day back to work, Joseph got a surprising call.

"The director of marketing at Lenox [the primary sponsor on Sunday's Sprint Cup race] called me down to the office and asked whether my family and I wanted to be grand marshals for the race," Joseph says. He and his family soon agreed.

"What a great way to support Lenox for everything they've done to help me," he says. "And then to honor all those who have lost things and still found the time to help everybody out -- it's really special."

As for the Josephs, they're still busy getting their lives back in order. Since the storm, their house has been demolished to its foundation and they've been living in a rented condo ("It's a place to live, but it's not home," Joseph says). And while they managed to save some belongings -- "mostly clothes" -- there's still a long way to go. But for now, Joseph says, the future looks bright.

"We landed in a pretty good spot," Joseph says. "The house foundation looks like it can be built on. We are currently in the planning stages for that. We're talking to an architect and a builder and trying to get something going. Hopefully by mid-August we can get building. We're OK. It's only a house. It could have been a lot worse."