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 down the stairs into their basement.
Uninjured, the pair looked out moments later to find the house gone and the sun out and “right on top” of them, Zehr said. The home on the outskirts of Washington, Ill., was swept up and scattered over hundreds of yards by one of the dozens of tornadoes and intense thunderstorms that swept across the Midwest on Sunday, leaving at least six people dead and unleashing 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.
Entire blocks in Washington were leveled. Other area towns were heavily damaged, too, and officials at Chicago’s Soldier Field evacuated the stands and delayed the Bears-Baltimore Ravens game.
The wave of thunderstorms that brought the damaging winds and tornadoes affected 12 states: Michigan, Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois, Missouri, Indiana, Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee, West Virginia, Pennsylvania and western New York.
Bill Bunting, forecast operations chief of the National Weather Service’s Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla., said the storms were part of the same system and would be “moving rapidly to the east and continue east overnight and into the morning.”
Illinois was struck the hardest by the unusually powerful late-season tornadoes. At least six were killed and dozens more injured, though with communications difficult and many roads impassable, it remained unclear how many people might be hurt or whether the death toll would continue to climb.
An elderly man and his sister were killed when a tornado hit their home in the rural southern Illinois community of New Minden, coroner Mark Styninger said. A third person died in Washington, while three others perished in Massac County in the far southern part of the state, said Patti Thompson of the Illinois Emergency Management Agency. She did not provide details.
Washington, a town of 16,000 about 140 miles southwest of Chicago, appeared to have 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.
Across farm fields a little more than a mile from where Zehr’s home was swept up, several blocks of homes in one neighborhood 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 said it had dispatched 10 firefighters and three vehicles to Washington to assist with immediate search and recovery operations.
As law enforcement officers continued to search for victims and sized up the cleanup and rebuilding job ahead, they kept everyone but residents and emergency workers out. 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 truck lights.
Still, by nightfall Trooper Pierce said there were reports of looting around town.