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.

If the National Weather Service agrees Wednesday’s three deaths are tornado-related, it would bring the year’s U.S. toll to 522 and make this year the deadliest for tornadoes since 1950. The highest recorded toll was 519 in 1953; four deaths from Joplin, Mo., that were added Thursday tied the record. There were deadlier years before 1950, but those counts were based on estimates.

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 drove to a nearby 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 residents, 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.

Michael Valentin, 29, said he was eating at a soup kitchen near downtown when he started hearing thunder and went outside.

“All this was chaos,” he said. “It was like a mad wind twisting. It was destroying everything. Cars were being smashed against walls. Pieces of wood and trees were flying in the air.”

Debbie Perkins, 30, was filling up a small backyard swimming pool for some children when they spotted the funnel. They ran into the home and huddled in the basement.

“The kids, they were all screaming and crying,” Perkins said. Unlike many of her neighbors, she escaped without damage to her home.

Among the injured in Springfield was a prosecutor struck in the head by debris while walking to her car; she is expected to survive, but her name was not released.

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.

Fabiola Guerrero wept Thursday as she returned to the wreckage of her family’s home, which collapsed and crushed to death her 39-year-old mother, Angelica, as she sheltered a younger daughter in a bathtub. Guerrero said her sister was trapped for two hours before being rescued.

Guerrero said her mother always said she would die for her daughter.

“She was an amazing woman,” she said.

The devastation 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, usually a quiet mountain hamlet about 90 miles west of Boston.

The toppled steeple of the First Church of Monson — founded in 1762 and rebuilt in 1873 — was a symbol of the heartbreak many residents were feeling. But townspeople were relieved that no one in the town of fewer than 10,000 was killed — and were determined to rebuild.

Patrick said he was moved by gestures of goodwill.

A woman in Monson received a phone call from someone in the Boston suburb of Milton — the governor’s hometown — who had recovered her checkbook register after the ferocious winds apparently carried it 90 miles.

He also 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.

The governor, who declared a state of emergency allowing officials to sidestep usual regulations to provide quick relief, pledged that the state would throw all its resources behind recovery and that federal disaster assistance would be sought.

“For those who are feeling, quite understandably, that they can’t imagine what a better tomorrow would look like, I want to assure that we are working to get to that better tomorrow,” he said.

Massachusetts public health officials said about 200 people sought treatment for injuries.

Dr. Reginald Alouidor, a surgeon heading the trauma teams at Baystate Medical Center in Springfield, said the injured at his hospital ranged in age from 2 to their mid-60s, with many suffering broken bones or other injuries from wind-driven debris.

Seven remained at the hospital Thursday, including a woman whose liver was lacerated when a building collapsed on her.

Police and National Guard troops went door to door in Springfield to check for any residents who were injured or otherwise needed help.