The strong and violent tornado that hit Windsor and Windsor Locks on October 3, 1979 can be best described as a freak storm. Tornadoes are rare in Connecticut and even more rare are strong tornadoes. Typically "tornado season" in the state is comprised of one or two weak tornadoes that occur in the late spring or early summer. This tornado occurred in early fall (snow fell a week later) in a very unusual weather pattern making this tornado one of the oddest and most damaging to ever hit the state.
Shortly after 3 p.m. a thunderstorm was racing north right along I-91 and brought flooding rains, high winds, and even hail to the greater Hartford area. When the storm moved into the Poquonock section of Windsor a violent tornado developed along Route 75 and moved north toward Bradley Airport and Suffield.
Dennis Rice was working at his father's hardware store that afternoon on Route 75 in Windsor. He went across the street to get a cup of coffee shortly before the storm struck and managed to get inside the store once the tornado began, "the windows were buckling back and forth. I put the coffee down and the doors started banging back and forth." The wind blew open the doors, shattered the windows, and sent Rice flying down an aisle in his store.
Rice was found refuge in between shelves on a display case that toppled onto him. The roof of the store peeled back like a sardine can and the walls collapsed around him. Rice managed to free himself and then ran down Route 75 to the home he grew up in to make sure his family was safe.
A half mile from Rice Hardware TJ Barresi barely survived the tornado as it barreled north. Barresi was on his way home from middle school with other students walking from his bus stop near the cemetery on Route 75. While walking down Pioneer Drive the rain and thunder picked up in intensity and soon the wind started blowing. Barresi remembers a portion of a tree flying across the the street and knocking him down. Injured, Barresi made his way to a guardrail next to a ditch when the full force of the tornado went over his head, "the scariest feeling I had was when I came to the realization I was all alone. I was by myself. The world around me turned black," he remembered.
TJ survived with just some bumps and bruises. The tornado was at its strongest when it went over Barresi's head with winds approaching 250 mph. The houses on either side of neighboring streets were completely demolished wiped off their foundations.
The storm moved north and took out the eastern part of Bradley Airport. Though it was weaker at this time it still tossed planes into the air, destroyed the Air National Guard base and the New England Air Museum. Businesses along Route 75 in Windsor Locks were badly damaged including factories, car rental locations, restaurants, and motels. Damage was in excess of 400 million dollars ranking this tornado as the 6th moist costly in United States history.
Following the storm the National Weather Service characterized the storm as a "small tornado." Ironically, the National Weather Service was located at Bradley Airport almost directly under the storm's path. The storm came without warning and was a surprise to meteorologists. The description of "small tornado" given to the news media that evening quickly changed to "large and violent" as the true extent of the damage became known. It's estimated that winds approached 250 mph at the storm's strongest point making this tornado the strongest and most costly tornado to strike Connecticut in recorded history.