WASHINGTON, Ill. (AP) - As a powerful tornado bore down on their Illinois
farmhouse, Curt Zehr’s wife and adult son didn’t have time to do anything
but scramble into their basement.
Uninjured, the pair looked out moments later to find the house gone. Their
home on the outskirts of Washington, Ill., was destroyed Sunday by one of
the dozens of tornadoes and intense thunderstorms that swept across the
Midwest in a swift-moving line of violent weather that killed at least eight
people and unleashed powerful winds that flattened entire neighborhoods,
flipped over cars and uprooted trees.
"They saw (the tornado) right there and got in the basement,” said a stunned
Zehr, pointing to the farm field near the rubble that had been his home.
Washington Mayor Gary Manier estimated that 250 to 500 homes had been
damaged or destroyed. It wasn’t clear when residents would be allowed to
“Everybody’s without power, but some people are without everything,” Manier
told reporters in the parking lot of a destroyed auto parts store and near a
row of flattened homes.
“How people survived is beyond me,” he said.
The unusually powerful late-season wave of thunderstorms brought damaging
winds and tornadoes to 12 states: Michigan, Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois,
Missouri, Indiana, Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee, West Virginia, Pennsylvania
and western New York.
Illinois was the hardest hit, with at least six people killed and dozens
more injured. Authorities said Monday that two other deaths occurred in
Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn promised all the assistance the state could provide
to victims of what he said were the deadliest November tornadoes in state
“We’re all in this together,” Quinn said.
The governor and others said the search for anybody trapped in the rubble
continued, but officials doubted that the death toll would climb. Illinois
Emergency Management Agency Director Jonathon Monken said rescuers had just
one field left to search in Washington before they can say with confidence
that everyone has been accounted for.
The six people who died in Illinois included an 80-year-old man and his
78-year-old sister who were killed by a twister that hit their farmhouse
near the rural community of New Minden. A third person died in Washington,
while three others perished in Massac County in the far southern part of the
state, authorities said.
One of the Massac County victims was identified as 63-year-old Scholitta
Burrus of Brookport, Ill.
“They found her over there buried amid the destruction,” McCracken County
Deputy Coroner Ryan Johnston said.
Moments before the tornado struck his home in Washington, Jim Svymbersky
went into his basement to retrieve his weather radio - a simple act that may
have spared his life.
“Saved by a weather radio,” he said Monday outside a supply store where he
was picking up plywood to board up blown-out windows.
Washington, a town of 16,000 about 140 miles southwest of Chicago, appeared
to have suffered the most severe damage. The tornado cut a path about an
eighth of a mile wide from one side of town to the other, state trooper
Dustin Pierce said.
Of the roughly 200 people who were injured, 120 of them were in Washington
when the tornado struck, officials said.
Across farm fields a little more than a mile from where Zehr’s home once
stood, several blocks of homes were destroyed.
“The whole neighborhood’s gone. The wall of my fireplace is all that is left
of my house,” said Michael Perdun, speaking by cellphone.
The Illinois National Guard assisted with search-and-recovery operations in
As the cleanup got underway, authorities kept everyone but residents and
emergency workers out of the affected neighborhoods. With power off and
lines down in many areas, natural gas lines leaking and trees and other
debris blocking many streets, an overnight curfew kept all but emergency
vehicles off pitch-black roads. The only lights visible across most of
Washington on Sunday night were red and blue flashes from police and fire
Pierce said there were reports of looting.
About 75 friends and neighbors helped Zehr to salvage his family’s
belongings. He said he’d been at church when the tornado hit but that his
wife, Sue, and son were at home.
A friend, Keith Noe, said the Zehr family still felt fortunate.
“They both walked out of the basement and that’s what counts,” Noe said.
Across Washington, an auto-parts store with several people inside was
reduced to a pile of bricks, metal and rebar; a battered car, its windshield
impaled by a piece of lumber, was flung alongside it.
“The employees were climbing out of this,” Pierce said, gesturing to the
rubble behind him. None of them was seriously injured, he said.
State spokesman Brian Williamson said hospitals reported treating about 60
people in Washington.
About 90 minutes after the tornado hit Washington, the stormy weather
darkened downtown Chicago. As the rain and high winds slammed into the area,
officials at Soldier Field evacuated the stands and ordered the Bears and
Baltimore Ravens off the field. Fans were allowed back to their seats
shortly after 2 p.m., and the game resumed after about a two-hour delay.
Just how many tornadoes hit was unclear. Although about 80 reports of
tornadoes had come in as of Sunday night, the National Weather Service’s
Bunting said the actual number will likely be 30 to 40 range. He said that’s
because the same tornado often gets reported multiple times.