8 killed by tornado in Illinois

Residents seeking refuge in bar crushed

51 twisters reported in Midwest

April 22, 2004|By P.J. Huffstutter | P.J. Huffstutter,LOS ANGELES TIMES

UTICA, Ill. - Dust and soot lined Mary Paulak's face in thick streaks yesterday, but she didn't notice as she wearily wandered through her decimated hometown.

When a tornado tore through this village of 1,000 people Tuesday evening, eight residents who had run to their favorite tavern for safety were crushed to death when the century-old building collapsed.

At least 10 people had to be taken to hospitals for injuries. Businesses along the town's two-block main street were destroyed, and the streets were covered ankle-deep with crumbled brick and shredded tree branches.

Many of those who died were Paulak's friends. The last missing bodies were discovered late yesterday, town officials said.

"The sky turned purple, and then the air screamed," said Paulak, 58, who was born and raised in this Irish settlement about 90 miles southwest of Chicago. "It sounded like a woman shrieking with rage."

The storm struck here too fast for many people to react. Even though it is tornado season, residents said, the winds had remained relatively calm this year.

But the winds hammered the Midwest on Tuesday. Officials with the National Weather Service's storm prediction center in Norman, Okla., said they received reports of 51 tornadoes. Most were clustered in Illinois and Indiana, but some were spotted as far as Nebraska, Iowa and Oklahoma.

According to weather officials, the storm in Utica was rated an F3, or "serious," tornado - one that has the ability to destroy roofs, tear walls off homes, overturn trains and uproot most trees in a forest.

The tornado in Utica was estimated to be 200 yards wide, with winds up to 206 mph.

It was a "devastating storm," said Nathan Marsili, a meteorologist with the NWS. Such wind speeds are "not all that common, and this [tornado] is all that much worse because of where it happened to touch down - in a populated area."

Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who toured Utica and several other storm-damaged communities yesterday, declared four counties disaster areas and committed state funds for recovery efforts.

As the tornado approached Tuesday, all anyone here wanted was shelter.

Many residents decided to head to their favorite tavern, the Milestone Restaurant and Lounge. Wayne Ball, 63, and Bev Wool, 67, left their homes at a trailer park and rushed to the bar seeking a place to hide.

For years, they and others had come to dance the two-step inside this seemingly sturdy stone-and-brick building, and croon along to their favorite country-western ballads.

When the tornado siren went off, LaSalle County Fire Chief Dave Edgecomb said, the patrons raced to the basement. Some couldn't move quickly enough and were crushed when the sandstone building collapsed under the tornado's powerful winds.

Others, including Ball and Wool, were caught in the rubble after the storm pulled back the roof of the two-story building.

"When it came down, both stories just collapsed into the basement," Thompson said.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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