Today in 1979, one of the most devastating freak storms in state history spawned a massive F-4 tornado that tore through north-central Connecticut. Just after 3:00pm, a funnel cloud touched down in the Poquonock area of Windsor and carved a path four miles long and a quarter-mile wide northward through Windsor Locks, Suffield, and across the Massachusetts border before dissipating.
Connecticut has long ranked as one of the places with the lowest overall occurrences of tornadoes in the entire United States; in a typical year, the state experiences an average of one or two weak tornadoes, usually in the late spring or summer months. Strong tornadoes are extremely rare in Connecticut at any time of the year. Meteorologists were caught completely off guard by the unusual early October storm; no tornado watches or warnings were issued before the funnel cloud first touched down, and a severe thunderstorm warning was issued with only minutes to spare.
The most startling scenes to emerge from the storm’s aftermath were from Windsor Locks, where the tornado narrowly missed a direct hit on Bradley International Airport but obliterated the nearby Bradley (now New England) Air Museum. Aerial photos taken the next day revealed a scene of mechanical carnage: dozens of antique aircraft were broken into pieces with wreckage strewn across the museum’s outdoor campus, and the roof of the museum’s original World War II-era bunker was completely peeled back, resembling an opened sardine can.
What became known as the “Windsor Locks tornado” ripped roofs off dozens buildings throughout the area, completely destroying over 60 structures and three dozen businesses. In addition to damaging winds, the storm dumped over two inches of rain and pelted the area with hail reported to be be up to 1.5″ in diameter. Three people died, and hundreds more sustained storm-related injuries. Governor Ella Grasso activated over 200 members of the Connecticut National Guard and issued a curfew as a precaution to prevent looting in the chaotic aftermath of the storm. The F-4 tornado ultimately caused over nearly $700 million in damage (adjusted to today’s dollars), enough to classify the storm of October 3, 1979 as one of the top ten costliest storms in U.S. history.
Ryan Hanrahan, “Remembering Windsor, Windsor Locks Tornado: 30 Years Later,” NBC Connecticut
“Tornado!” New England Air Museum online exhibit