Searchers with shovels and buckets pulled eight bodies Wednesday from the rubble of a tavern where residents had gathered to seek shelter from a twister that flattened the century-old building. Authorities said they did not believe they would find any more survivors.
Utica Mayor Fred Esmond said several people from a nearby trailer park had congregated in the basement of the Milestone Tap on a night when dozens of twisters tore through the Midwest.
Nine people were removed alive from the ruins of the country-western-themed watering hole.
“They heard it on the radio. Some of them went to the tavern for safety, and it just so happened ... ,” Esmond said, his voice trailing off.
Four women and four men died in the collapse, including the couple who owned the tavern. LaSalle County Coroner Jody Bernard said the victims, who were found in various locations of the bar, ranged in age from 18 to 81. The two-story building’s crumbling sandstone foundation slowed rescuers’ efforts as they gingerly dug through the sandy rubble.
The twister cut a wide swath of destruction in Utica, a town of 2,000 people about 90 miles southwest of Chicago.
“A major portion of the downtown was either damaged or destroyed,” said LaSalle County Sheriff Tom Templeton. Homes and businesses were reduced to piles of brick and splintered wood. The roof of the elementary school was blown clean off.
More than 10 people were taken to hospitals, and at least six remained there Wednesday afternoon.
Victims did everything right
When the storm struck at 6 p.m. (7 p.m. ET), patrons and residents of a nearby mobile-home park fled to the basement of the tavern, where the storm collapsed the early 20th-century structure on top of them.
“The tragedy [is] of people who did exactly what they should have done in going to the basement in that tavern, and they still ended up with a tragic ending,” Mike Chamness, director of the Illinois Emergency Management Agency, told NBC News.
Gov. Rod Blagojevich declared LaSalle, Putnam, Will and Kankakee counties disaster areas, making them eligible for state assistance. He said seeing the devastation was a “humbling experience.”
Bill Burke, director of the Illinois Emergency Management Agency, said officials of the Federal Emergency Management Agency planned to visit Thursday to see whether the areas qualified for federal disaster relief.
The tornado, the first deadly twister of the season, was among 51 for which the National Weather Service Storm Prediction Center said it had unconfirmed reports Tuesday. Most were in Illinois and Indiana, with other sightings in Iowa, Nebraska and Oklahoma. Tornado watches or warnings were posted Wednesday in a wide swath from Texas to Illinois.
While the peak tornado season in North America runs from March to early July, this season had been relatively calm until Tuesday.
Storms leave damage in Indiana
Violent storms also ripped through central Indiana, injuring at least eight people.
Authorities said three to six people suffered minor injuries in Jamestown, northwest of Indianapolis, where about a dozen homes were damaged. The storm reportedly blew as many as four tractor-trailer rigs off highways.
More than 30 teenagers were attending a party at the Kokomo Skating Arena when a tornado tore off the roof. Employees saw the twister approaching in time to give a warning, and no injuries were reported.
“You know the rides they have at amusement parks, where the roof raises and then drops like it’s going to hit you? That’s what it was like,” said Jill Foster, a sponsor of one of the groups of skaters.
Rescue search in Illinois
Generators roared overnight, supplying power to rescue workers as they toiled in the dark. Yellow police tape cordoned off several downtown blocks where the heaviest damage occurred.
“This would equate to what I saw in Plainfield 10 or 15 years ago,” Illinois State Trooper Tim Reppin said, referring to a tornado that killed 29 people and damaged more than 1,000 homes along a 16-mile path near Joliet on Aug. 28, 1990.
“There is devastation everywhere,” said Bonita Welch of the Red Cross. “Trees are uprooted, whole huge trees, houses have no roofs, parts of houses are missing.”
No time to be scared
Mervin Taylor, 72, had just finished rounding up his 22 head of cattle when he saw the huge tornado barreling toward his home take a left and head for downtown Utica.
Taylor, whose property was not damaged, said the tornado turned away from his property about a block away. “I didn’t have time to be scared,” he said.
The storm collapsed a drugstore roof and destroyed at least one home in the Chicago suburb of Joliet, officials there said. It also damaged about 60 homes and a bank in Granville.
Sam Zulbeari, who owns Ali’s Pantry Family Restaurant in downtown Granville, said that trees were toppled and that cars and stores had broken windows but that his business was not damaged.
“It happened so quick. We just ran to basement,” Zulbeari said. “We got scared a little bit, but we’re lucky we didn’t get hurt. ... It’s just miserable.”
At least 15,000 homes were without power across three counties Tuesday night.