HARRISBURG, Ill. – A pre-dawn twister flattened entire blocks of homes in a small Illinois town Wednesday as violent storms ravaged the Midwest and South, 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.
The twister that raked Branson seemed to hopscotch up the city’s main roadway, moving from side to side.
As sirens blared, Derrick Washington stepped out of his motel room just long enough to see a greenish-purple sky. Then he heard the twister roar.
“Every time the tornado hit a building, you could see it exploding,” he said.
At least 37 people were reported hurt, but most suffered only cuts and bruises. After the start of Branson’s peak season in mid-March, up to 60,000 visitors would have been in hotels on any given day.
Just six guests were staying at J.R.’s Motor Inn, and all of them escaped injury by taking refuge in bathtubs. Engineers deemed the building a total loss after the second floor, the roof and all windows were destroyed.
Manager Lori McGauley choked back tears thinking about what might have been.
“We had 25 people booked for next week,” McGauley said. “If this happened a week later, we would have lost some people.”
At the 530-room downtown Hilton, intense winds sucked furniture away. Hotel workers were able to get all guests to safety.
Elsewhere 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.
Three people were reported killed in eastern Tennessee – two in Cumberland County and another in DeKalb County as storms that dropped pingpong ball-sized hail in some areas collapsed homes and downed power lines.
Mobile homes and houses were flattened in multiple cities in Kentucky, including Elizabethtown in the north-central part of the state, where a tornado with winds of 125 mph touched down. Tommy Turner, the judge-executive in nearby LaRue County, said the storm just missed a large day care and three schools.
Three buildings belonging to an Elizabethtown trucking company were heavily damaged by the violent weather, which also lashed parts of Kansas, Arkansas and Oklahoma.
The tornado that barreled through the tiny eastern Kansas town of Harveyville was an EF-2, with wind speeds of 120 to 130 mph, state officials said. It left much of the community in rubble.
The twisters headed toward the East Coast were spawned by a powerful storm system that blew down from the Rockies on Tuesday. Authorities were sending teams to investigate today to determine if tornadoes were involved in Tennessee.
Corey Mead, lead forecaster at the Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla., said a broad cold front was slamming into warm, humid air over much of the eastern half of the nation.