Tornadoes strike nation’s heartland, killing at least 12 and lashing towns
HARRISBURG, ILL. | A pre-dawn twister flattened entire blocks of homes in a small Illinois town Wednesday as violent storms ravaged the Midwest, killing at least 12 people in three states.
Winds also ripped through the country music mecca of Branson, Mo., damaging some of the city’s famous theaters just days before the start of the busy tourist season.
The tornado that blasted Harrisburg in southern Illinois, killing six, was an EF4, the second-highest rating given to twisters based on damage. Scientists said it was 200 yards wide with winds up to 170 mph.
By midday, townspeople in the community of 9,000 were sorting through piles of debris and remembering their dead while the winds still howled around them.
Not long after the storm, Darrell Osman raced to his mother’s home, arriving just in time to speak to her before she was taken to a hospital with a head injury, a severe cut to her neck and a broken arm and leg.
“She was conscious. I wouldn’t say she was coherent. There were more mumbles than anything,” he said. “She knew we were there.” Mary Osman died a short time later. In Branson, an apparent twister seemed to hopscotch up the city’s main roadway. At least 37 people were reported hurt, mostly with cuts and bruises.
“We were blessed with several things — the time of year and certainly the time of day, when people were not in their vehicles or outdoors,” said Mayor Raeanne Presley, noting that during Branson’s peak season, up to 60,000 visitors would have been in the city on any given day and staying in many of the hotels that were damaged.
“If it was a week later, it’d be a different story,” said Bill Tirone, assistant general manager for the 530-room downtown Hilton hotel, where the intense wind shattered windows and sucked away furniture. Hotel workers were able to get all guests to safety.
John Moore, owner of the damaged Cakesn-creams ‘50s Diner, said the tornado seemed to target the city’s main strip, plowing through the entertainment district and a convention center.
“The theater next to me kind of exploded. It went everywhere,” Mr. Moore said. “The hotels on the two sides of me lost their roofs.”
In Harrisburg, where six people were killed, scientists said the tornado was an EF4, the second-highest rating given to twisters based on damage. The storm was 200 yards wide with wind up to 170 mph, meteorologist Rick Shanklin said.
The wind was strong enough to blow the walls off some rooms at the Harrisburg Medical Center, leaving disheveled beds and misplaced furniture. The staff got enough warning to move the most-endangered patients. Then they heard the walls collapse, officials said.
The hospital discharged patients who could go home or moved them to other medical facilities. But they also had to confront an influx of injured.
“Helicopters have been coming in and out here all morning,” said hospital CEO Vince Ashley.
In Missouri, one person was killed in a trailer park in the town of Buffalo, about 35 miles north of Springfield. Two more fatalities were reported in the Cassville and Puxico areas.
The tornado that barreled through the tiny eastern Kansas town of Harveyville was an EF2, with wind speeds of 120 to 130 mph, state officials said. It left much of the community in rubble.
The twisters were spawned by a powerful storm system that blew down from the Rockies on Tuesday and was headed toward the East Coast.
Keith Hucke and Devyn Byrd, 14, survey Mr. Hucke’s battered bedroom after a severe storm hit Wednesday during the early morning hours in Harrisburg, Ill. A Hilton hotel (top) in Branson, Mo., shows the tornado-wind damage of a powerful storm system that lashed the Midwest. Judy Hudnall (below) is comforted Wednesday by her brother, Gene Pickerill, after seeing the storm damage to her home in Henderson, Ky. Tornados were blamed for much of the destruction.