Daily Egyptian

Harrisburg residents remember 2012 tornado disaster

Ida Evans holds the hand of her sister Teresa Collins during the four-year memorial of the Leap Day Tornado on Monday in Harrisburg. The tornado ripped through Harrisburg on Feb. 29, 2012, killing eight, including their 70-year-old father Donald Smith. “He was only conscious long enough to ask if my mom was OK,” Evans said. (Luke Nozicka | Daily Egyptian)

By Bill Lukitsch, @Bill_LukitschDE

It was 4:56 a.m. on Feb. 29, 2012 when citizens of Harrisburg woke to the sound of a tornado siren.

Within minutes, 180 mph winds ripped through the town of about 9,000 people. Six were found dead in the wreckage and more than 100 were hurt. Two more died from their injuries in the following days.

Roughly 150 people gathered Monday on the four-year anniversary of the tragedy that claimed lives, homes and local businesses. Harrisburg Mayor Dale Fowler held back tears as he addressed the crowd from his podium near a commemorative monument encircled by eight American flags — one for each victim.

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“Today is an opportunity for us to remember the lives that were lost and to show our love and support to the families affected,” said Fowler, who was appointed as the mayor in 2014.

Families and friends shared memories. Mass prayers were spoken. A 21-gun salute from the Harrisburg American Legion signaled the end.

“It’s always been my commitment as mayor that those eight lives will never be forgotten,” Fowler said shortly after the ceremony. “You just don’t ever think this sort of thing is going to happen to you.”

The EF4 tornado touched down southeast of Harrisburg at 4:51 a.m. and laid a 26.5-mile path to four miles northeast of Ridgway. More than 200 homes and about 25 businesses were destroyed or heavily damaged, including an entire strip mall east of U.S. Route 45. More than 100 of trees were uprooted or snapped in half. Power lines were knocked down.

Gallery: Our photos from Feb. 29, 2012

The total destruction of the storm was estimated at $13.1 million.

Ida Evans was at her home in nearby Creal Springs when the natural disaster struck. Her sister Teresa Collins called her that morning with horrific news: Both of their parents were missing.

“It was devastating trying to drive in town and not being able to get anywhere,” Evans said.

Their mother Kay Smith was found injured soon after, but it took more than two hours to locate their 70-year-old father Donald Smith.

“He was only conscious long enough to ask if my mom was OK,” Evans said.

Donald Smith died seven days later at Deaconess Hospital in Evansville, Ind.

In the following weeks, the town received momentous volunteer support from around the region. It is that sense of community which symbolizes the region, Fowler said.

“This is what southern Illinois is all about,” he said.

MORE, from 2012: “It looks like a bomb went off.” | Campus aids Harrisburg in tornado relief

When the crowd began to disperse, Collins and Evans went to the stone monument. Collins ran her fingers across the chiseled name of their father and gave a teary-eyed smile to Evans.

“We’ve met so many different people over the years, but every day we still cry,” Evans said.

Bill Lukitsch can be contacted at [email protected] or 618-536-3329.

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