HARRISBURG, Ill. – Mayor Eric Gregg said he knew something was wrong when he stepped outside his home here Wednesday and, although tornado warning sirens were blaring across the city, it felt “eerily quiet.”
“I had a feeling something was dreadfully wrong,” he said. “Unfortunately those feelings came to pass, and we have devastation in our community like we have never seen.”
A tornado, estimated by the National Weather Service at EF4 strength, tore through the southeastern part of the Saline County city just before 5 a.m. It left at least six people dead and about 100 people injured.
It wasn’t the sirens that woke up Josh Summers and his wife, Lindsey, who live near the hardest hit area of the city of about 10,000 residents.
“We were just in bed, sleeping and woke up to a big crash,” said Summers who said the twister blew out all of his windows and shifted the roof of his brick home.
But many of the structures around his house weren’t so lucky, especially a nearby apartment complex.
“I was out helping guys at the duplexes – all I could hear was screams for help because all three of my windows were busted out, and I could hear them.”
A 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew was imposed for the damaged areas of Harrisburg Wednesday. Between 200 and 300 homes were hit in a swath of destruction about a mile and a half wide, authorities said. Two dozen businesses were also damaged or destroyed. A new strip mall, which included a sporting goods store and Dollar Tree, was flattened, and a Walmart was heavily damaged.
That area behind the Walmart was where most of the injuries and deaths occurred, Fire Chief Bill Summers said. Rescue crews were “fairly sure,” he said, that all residents was accounted for. He said there were “numerous” rescues in the hours that followed the tornado.
By midmorning only emergency personnel were allowed in the hardest hit area. Summers said at least part of the reason was because of fear of an explosion because of ruptured gas lines.
“There were gas leaks everywhere, you could just hear it pouring out of all the pipes behind everyone’s houses,” he said.
More than three hours after the storm swept through, an alarm was still blaring at the nearby Old National Bank, which had substantial damage. Some patients at Harrisburg Medical Center, which also suffered a “direct hit,” were transferred to other facilities, but the emergency room stayed open and was powered by a generator. Harrisburg Medical Center CEO Vince Ashley said no one was injured from the tornado striking the facility.
Ameren Illinois said the storm knocked out power to more than 12,000 customers. An Ameren official said it could be Friday before power is completely restored.
Across Highway 45 Charles and Diana Turner and family members were cleaning up what was left of the couple’s mobile home. Charles Turner, 71, said he had made a pot of coffee and was in the bathroom when the tornado blasted through their home.
“There was a big flash of light, and I hit the floor and there was like a big explosion and everything came right down on top of me,”
He ended up in his yard with the bathtub next to him about 40 feet away from where the bathroom should have been. Though he required a trip to the hospital because of severe bruising, he was just counting blessings that he and his wife of more than four decades weren’t among the dead.
“I’m not sure what kept both of us from being killed,” he said.