(Corrects infant's age in paragraph 1)
By Mary Wisniewski
WASHINGTON, Ill. Nov 18 When a powerful tornado
bore down on the small city of Washington, Illinois, on Sunday,
Ryan Bowers took his wife's advice and sheltered in the basement
with their 2-1/2-month-old daughter and their pet dogs.
Winds of up to 200 miles per hour leveled their home, along
with a large swath of the city of 15,000 people east of Peoria,
but the Bowers survived, as did many of their neighbors.
The twister, part of a fast-moving storm that hammered much
of the Midwest, killed eight people in Illinois and Michigan,
but many survived thanks to quick reactions like Bowers's and
because their homes had basements to flee to.
"I have to believe that 90 percent of those people who
survived were probably in their basement, taking cover, or at
church," said Washington Mayor Gary Manier, who noted that he
was among the many town residents who took refuge in church
basements when they heard tornado warning sirens.
"We thank God that our community listened and took heed,"
Manier said, standing in a destroyed section of Washington where
bits of American flags and insulation from destroyed houses
clung to trees that had been stripped of most of their branches
and remaining leaves by the storm.
Bowers, 33, said that he normally disregarded tornado
warnings but headed to his basement after seeing the debris
cloud barreling toward his house.
"I ran back inside, ran in the basement, not 15 seconds
later our basement windows were sucked in and everything was
twirling about," said Bowers. "Everything was white and all I
could hear was snapping ... Things were dropping on top of me
and splitting in two."
He and his wife Andrea, 32, briefly returned on Monday to
retrieve a family Bible and a pink baby rattle that was their
daughter Sydney's favorite toy.
UP TO 500 HOMES DAMAGED
As they were sorting through the wreckage, a police officer
approached and told them to leave. Authorities had closed the
destroyed area, where buildings were reduced to rubble and cars
were turned upside down, out of concern that people could be
injured while attempting to retrieve possessions.
Jonathan Monken, director of the Illinois Emergency
Management Agency (IEMA), said officials would allow people to
return to the affected area after they confirmed it was safe.
"The sooner we can get residents in the better," Monken
said. "We want to be able to get that debris cleared so we can
start that process of rebuilding as soon as possible."
Manier estimated that 250 to 500 homes had been damaged by
the tornado, rated as the second-most powerful magnitude of
twister, which hit the city east of Peoria with winds of 166 to
200 miles per hour (267-322 kilometers per hour).
The storm killed three people in Massac County, two in
Washington County and one in the city of Washington, in Tazewell
County, said Patti Thompson of the IMEA.
Illinois State Police spokesman Dustin Pierce said about 120
people were injured in Washington.
An 80-year-old man and his 78-year-old sister were killed in
Washington County, about 200 miles (320 km) south of Peoria,
County Coroner Mark Styninger said.
The three were killed in Massac County on the Kentucky
border when a tornado devastated several neighborhoods,
emergency officials said.
Rescue workers in central Michigan found the body of a
59-year-old man entangled in downed power lines on Sunday night.
The man went outside to investigate a noise, according to
Shiawassee County Sheriff's Department Lieutenant David Kirk.
A 21-year-old man was killed on Sunday night when a tree
fell on his car in the central Michigan town of Leslie, said
Jackson County Sheriff Steven Rand. It was unclear whether the
man struck the tree while driving or if high winds in the area
toppled the tree, Rand said.
The storm also damaged homes and building in Indiana and
Kentucky, though no fatalities were reported in those states.
The unusual late-season storms moved dangerously fast,
tracking east at 60 miles per hour (97 kph), with the bulk of
the damage spanning about five hours, Thompson said.
BASEMENT SAFE HAVENS
Survivors said they rode out the storm in their basements,
which are common in homes in the affected area, a fact that may
have helped hold down the death toll, officials said. In May, a
monster, top-category tornado killed 24 people in Moore,
Oklahoma, a part of the United States where basements are less
Nancy Rampy, 62, said she fled to her basement when she
heard the storm sirens blaring on Sunday.
"I heard what sounded like 12 trains just roaring down the
tracks, and it just wouldn't stop. It just kept coming and
coming," Rampy said. "I ran to the basement, sat in the basement
with my flashlight in the dark and just prayed, 'Let it be over
Rampy's house was spared.
"The good news is the tornado warning system worked, so
there wasn't a lot of loss of life," said U.S. Representative
Aaron Schock, a Republican whose district includes Washington,
Illinois. "These people knew what was coming, and they were
smart and took cover."
(Additional reporting by Brendan O'Brien in Milwaukee, Carey
Gillam in Kansas City and Scott DiSavino in New York; Writing by
Scott Malone; Editing by Lisa Von Ahn, Maureen Bavdek, Jim
Marshall and Bob Burgdorfer)