MONSON, Mass. - The sight of flattened homes, peeled-off roofs, and the toppled steeple of a 140-year-old church stunned New Englanders after deadly tornadoes swept through Massachusetts, striking an area of the country that rarely sees such severe twisters.

The storms, which came with fair warning but still shocked with their intensity, killed at least three people, injured about 200, and wreaked damage in a string of 18 cities and villages across central and western Massachusetts.

Tornadoes are not unheard of in New England - the downtown of Connecticut's largest city was devastated by one last June - so many people heeded warnings. That didn't guarantee their survival; among the dead was a mother who shielded her teenage daughter as they huddled in a bathtub.

But in many cases, doing the right thing - quickly - helped save lives.

Karen Irla, 50, was leaving Adams Hometown Market in the picturesque village of Monson when she heard children on their bicycles yelling, "Look at that tornado!"

"I screamed and I screamed and I screamed, and that's why I have no voice today," said Irla, who went against experts' recommendations by getting into her car. She made it to a senior center and waited until the storm passed.

Inside the market, produce manager Frank Calabrese made a quick decision that helped keep customers and employees from coming to harm.

In a move recalling a famous video from the recent deadly tornado in Missouri that documented shoppers' terrifying moments inside a convenience-store cooler, Calabrese herded them into a walk-in freezer, where six to eight endless minutes passed while the building shook and windows shattered.

"What else are we going to do?" he said. "We sat inside and waited it out." No one in the store suffered a scratch.

The storms hit as many people headed home from work Wednesday, paralyzing motorists who could see the twister coming at them.

A fixed television camera caught dramatic images of a debris-filled tunnel cloud crossing the Connecticut River and slamming into Springfield, a working-class city of about 140,000, where it cut a swath of destruction 10 blocks wide in some spots. The city is home to the Basketball Hall of Fame, which was spared damage.

The Hampden County district attorney, Mark Mastroianni, said he barely escaped injury himself when plate-glass windows shattered and blew into his office and a conference room.

"People started to scream, 'Get away from the windows,' and as I was just turning to run, the glass window just came flying in," he said.

The story was repeated in town after town around Springfield. Some of the most severe damage was in Monson, about 15 miles away, where homes were leveled and a historic church was badly damaged.

"This isn't supposed to happen here," Sen. John Kerry said after touring the damage in Monson.

Gov. Deval Patrick addressed the death of the West Springfield woman who died while saving her daughter's life by covering her in the bathtub.

"I'm a dad, and I understand a mom or dad would do anything to save their child," Patrick said.

Authorities initially believed at least four people died but later determined that a heart-attack death in Springfield was likely unrelated to the storms. A man died when a tree struck a van in West Springfield, and another person died in Brimfield, though authorities have not released details.