At least six killed in Harrisburg tornado

By Tara Kulash

View all of The Daily Egyptian Harrisburg Tornado Photos below


A tornado that roared through Harrisburg in the predawn darkness Wednesday left six people dead and a swath of destruction that flattened entire blocks.

“It looks like a bomb went off,” said Lt. Tracy Felty of the Saline County sheriff’s office.

Jerry Watson, Saline County coroner, said four women and two men died. The sheriff’s office said the storm injured about 100 people, and demolished or damaged 200 to 300 homes and 25 businesses. An entire strip mall on Highway 45 was leveled.

Harrisburg Medical Center was damaged and patients were evacuated to other hospitals even as the emergency room kept treating the injured. CEO Vince Ashley said no one at the hospital was injured.

The National Weather Service classified the tornado as an EF4, with wind speeds up to 170 mph, the second-most powerful on the Enhanced Fujita Scale.

Mayor Eric Gregg said the sirens sounded just before the massive tornado hit at 4:56 a.m., but the storm hit too quickly for most residents to wake up and take shelter.

The sheriff’s office directed residents to a shelter at Harrisburg’s First Baptist Church after the storm.

Among those at the church was Danielle Mathews, who said she heard the siren and immediately called her friend Angela Capps and told her to take cover.

The two said they planned to spend the night at the church because their apartment complex had no power.

“I have no family here except for my kids,” Capps said. “Church was the best place to come.”

Capps and Mathews said they were trying to be strong for their children, who were playing nearby with toys provided by the Red Cross.

“Right now, we’re emotionally fine. We haven’t cried yet for the kids,” Capps said. “I’m sure we’ll go in the bathroom eventually and bawl our eyes out.”

Gov. Pat Quinn toured Harrisburg and proclaimed parts of southern Illinois a disaster area, allowing state resources to be deployed to assist the area’s recovery.

“My heart goes out to the victims of this devastating storm, and I would like to thank the many people who have stepped up and volunteered to aid their neighbors,” Quinn said.

Rick Shanklin of the National Weather Service in Paducah, Ky., said the tornado was about 200 yards wide but expanded as it moved across the southern part of Harrisburg to the east.

According to National Weather Service statistics, 2011 had more deaths because of twisters than the previous eight years combined. No fatalities occurred in Illinois, and a majority of the 550 deaths resulted from the storms that tore through Tuscaloosa, Ala., and Joplin, Mo.

The Harrisburg tornado was the deadliest in Illinois since April 2004, when a tornado killed eight people in LaSalle County.

Police in Harrisburg blocked roads leading to the damaged area Wednesday night, enforcing a curfew that took effect at 6 p.m.

Debbie Porter, a volunteer for the American Red Cross, said the shelter was opened by 7:30 a.m. She said by noon, more than 100 volunteers had signed in and left their contact information so they could help.

Porter said while there are many volunteers today, the community will be in more need of them within the next few days for cleanup and to sort through possessions from damaged property.

Carbondale Mayor Joel Fritzler, who was at the church as a Red Cross volunteer, said other communities will continue to help Harrisburg during the week.