Stunned residents across the Midwest picked through the wreckage of what used to be their homes on Monday after a fierce storm system swept across six states, spawned nearly 60 reported tornadoes and killed at least eight people.
From the air, large areas of the devastated city of Washington, Ill., looked like a moonscape as the vastness of the devastation was exposed. Even large electrical towers made of steel lay on the ground, twisted like pretzels.
The storm system tore the steeple off a church 10 minutes after Mass let out and even forced the Chicago Bears to stop their game against the Baltimore Ravens.
Jeff Ekena, Principal of John L. Hensey Elementary in Washington said he hunkered down in the basement with his family when the storm came through sounding “like a freight train.”
The Ekenas emerged to find “just flatness,” and then the destruction beyond, he said.
"Nobody has anything left," Nancy Rampy, of Washington, Ill., told NBC Chicago. "It's all gone. It's just awful."
Guida Scheer, owner of one of the destroyed homes, sifted through the rubble and pulled out a Bible.
“It was my boyfriend's Bible,” she said. “It was actually his dad's and that was one of the things that he wanted to make sure that we tried to find.”
“I’ve found pieces of my house 100 yards northeast of me,” Scott Gundy, another resident of Washington, where one person died, told TODAY.
“I got the most important things out, which were pictures, video of my kids growing up,” he said. “To me that’s the most important thing. Everything else can be replaced.”
The mayor of Washington, Gary Manier, said the devastation there was “unbelievable.” He said that 250 to 500 houses were destroyed in Washington, a city of about 15,000 people.
The National Weather Service rated the tornado that ripped through the area an EF-4 — a notch down from most intense rating — with wind speeds ranging from 170 to 190 mph.
Andrea Bowers said she and her husband and their 3-month-old daughter took shelter in the basement of their Washington home. The couple used their bodies to cover their baby and protect her from falling debris.
"Everything just started falling in and we just kind of rode it out and just prayed," she said.
Ryan Bowers said they were all unharmed , and that his wife and daughter even fell sleep during the storm.
Fred Zwicky / Journal Star via AP
Chuck Phillips looks out at the destruction that tore off part of his roof and left houses around him destroyed after a tornado left a path of devastation through the north end of Pekin, Ill.
Schools were closed in Washington on Monday, and churches and community groups also canceled events as the focus turned to recovery efforts and helping victims.
The Red Cross opened a shelter, and mental health experts were on hand. Earlier, people who had left and were trying to come back were turned away by police because of concerns about unstable buildings, and other lurking dangers.
“There's a lot of power lines down a lot of power lines that could still be alive. There's gas leaks all over the place. So it is still a very dangerous situation," Illinois State Trooper Dustin Pierce told NBC station WEEK TV.
Later, many of Washington's residents, including members of the high school football team, went to the destroyed areas to pitch and help those whose homes were destroyed.
“Hopefully, we can grow strong as a community together and jet get over it,” said one of the football players, Nathan Barker.
The National Weather Service said there were 81 reported tornadoes from the system on Sunday. Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn declared seven counties disaster areas. He said that dozens of people were hurt.
Full storm coverage from Weather.com
Further south in New Minden, Ill., the Rev. Timothy Mueller of St. John’s Lutheran Church told TODAY that a twister ripped the steeple off his church just 10 minutes after Mass.
“This has been rebuilt twice before in storms like this and, Lord willing, we’ll be able to rebuild again,” he said.
In neighboring Indiana, Phyllis Rawlins of Kokomo said she was still in shock.
“The roof was completely taken out,” she said looking where her home stood. “There is nothing you can see that’s left.”
She was able to save a Christmas ornament with a picture of her late husband of 42 years on it. He died last year.
“I had a great loss when I lost him and now this is another loss but I will make it with God’s help.” Rawlins said.
On Monday afternoon, the first victim from the storm was identified as 51-year-old Steve Neubauer, whose body was found near his home in Washington, Tazewell County Coroner Dr. James J. Baldi said in a statement. The coroner did not offer details. An autopsy was scheduled for late Monday.
Also among the dead were an 80-year-old man and his 78-year-old sister in Nashville, Ill., authorities said. Two people were killed in Brookport, near the Kentucky line, where police with dogs were doing door to door and a dusk-to-dawn curfew was in place.
One person was killed in Unionville, Ill., authorities said.
Two men died in Michigan. A 21-year-old was found dead in his vehicle, the car's roof caved in, in Jackson County. A 59-year-old was found entangled in high-voltage power lines near his home in Perry, Mich.
The unusually large and fast-moving system forced the Chicago Bears to halt their game against the Baltimore Ravens and NFL fans at Soldier Field to run for shelter as menacing clouds rolled in.
Chicago’s two major airports briefly stopped traffic while the metropolitan area was under a tornado watch.
The preliminary tornado count from the storm system stood at 59 – 25 confirmed and 34 unconfirmed – on Monday night, said Dr. Greg Forbes, severe weather expert at The Weather Channel.
Illinois and Indiana had the most reported tornadoes, with eight confirmed and 10 unconfirmed in Illinois and six confirmed and 15 unconfirmed in Indiana, Forbes said.
Besides the reported tornadoes, there were 358 reports of damaging wind and 40 reports of large hail, said Rich Thompson, a lead forecaster with the weather service’s Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla.
The storm weakened as it headed toward the Northeast, said Kevin Noth, lead meteorologist at The Weather Channel.
Despite the devastation left behind, as communities sought to recover from the deadly storm, many remained optimistic.
"We'll get through this because we all stand together," Washington's Rampy said.
“It’s sad,” said the school principal Ekena. “We’ll rebuild. But we got the biggest things, which was my family … we’ll take care of the rest.”
NBC News' Jeff Black, Henry Austin, M. Alex Johnson, Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.
First published November 19 2013, 2:39 AM