Last night was a wild one here in central Illinois.
It all started about 6 p.m. The wife and 12-year-old had gone to East Peoria (some 15 miles away) for pizza with a friend. The wife often does restaurant reviews for the paper, and this time a pizza joint was up for grabs. So she called a friend from the paper and the three of them headed off. I demurred, since I'm on a low-carb diet. Oh, and the Cubs were on television.
All good so far.
At about 7 p.m., the sky darkened and it began thundering. I switched from the Cubs game (on WGN Chicago) to a local station and saw that we were under a tornado warning. At that moment, the lights flickered and several tornado sirens began going off in the distance. Then the siren closest to our house (about half-a-mile away) went off.
Curious but not alarmed, I went out on the front porch with my cigar to watch the sky. (It's something I've always done; sirens go off, people head for the basement and I head for the front porch.)
I called the wife and they were on their way home. She needed to stop at the newspaper to drop her friend Kathy off, so I suggested they stay there until the storm passed. She agreed.
A minute later, several ambulances and police cars went screaming past the house (remember, we live on a blacktop road in the wooded bluffs, just north of the city). Then a firetruck went by, with a loudspeaker blaring: "Take cover immediately. This is not a drill. Take cover immediately!"
Whoa. I waved at the truck and called the wife, who was now stopped at a gas station about five miles from the newspaper. I strongly suggested she hurry up. She agreed.
I went back in the house for a moment to check the Weather Channel and the police scanner (a holdover from my journalism days) and heard that several tornadoes were on the ground nearby, including one right near where the wife and kid were. Oh, and there was one just up the road from me.
I went back out on the porch and lit another cigar. The clouds were among the most frightening I've ever seen (see photos above from pjstar.com; the top one is the Elmwood twister, the bottom shows what was above the city and the newspaper where the wife and kid were). Man, it was a sight. I could hear what sounded like a freight train (the cliche is true, it turns out) just south of here. While I couldn't see the twister, I sure as hell heard it.
By now, the wife and kid were at the newspaper (eight miles away) and the kid was sent down to the fortified basement, where I knew he would be safe. The wife pitched in because the newsroom was woefully understaffed and all hell was breaking loose. Finally, when the scanner said a tornado was literally at the newspaper, I texted her and strongly suggested (ahem) that she and the whole staff go to the basement.
Anyway, to make a very long story short, it eventually passed and the wife and kid got home unscathed. But 15 tornadoes had touched down in Peoria County (possibly a record) and the town of Elmwood some 35 miles west of here had taken a direct hit. I knew from the scanner traffic that they had closed the town down, blocked off all roads and were gathering people at the high school. I also knew the entire downtown area had been wiped out, as well as the grade school.
At 9 p.m., it was clear the paper didn't have the manpower to staff the hell that was still breaking loose throughout the area (including police digging for the body of Stacey Peterson here), so the wife and I decided to take a ride.
Well, we ended up driving through some of the worst weather I have ever seen. I managed to elude the police barricades and we ended up in Elmwood. With the 12-year-old. Such is the lives of professional journalists.
And what a scene it was. Completely dark. No power anywhere in town. Silent as a tomb. Clusters of people just standing in the roads, in yards, on the sidewalks. In shock. The town looked like it had been bombed. Parts of houses hung from what power lines were still strung up. There was an eerie popping sound and a hiss coming from the blocked-off downtown area -- downed electrical wires sparking and gas leaks from the dozens of buildings and cars that had been destroyed.
If you've seen the movie Twister, you might remember what Wakita looked like. It was sort of like that. Maybe not quite as bad. But you get the idea. Really spooky.
Anyway, the wife did her job. She interviewed survivors at the high school, talked to police and volunteers and all the good people who pitch in when these kinds of things happen. And then came the biggest news of the night:
There had been no injuries. None. It was a damned miracle. I still don't know how dozens weren't killed. The little movie theater was filled with people when the tornado scored a direct hit and destroyed it. Amazing. Just amazing.
We didn't get home until after midnight. What a night. Wow.
And the 12-year-old? He says it was the best night of his life. And he also thinks he has the coolest parents in the world for taking him.
Cool? Doubtful. Dedicated journalists? Yep. A little crazy at times? Sure.