Tornado survival tales: ‘When she opened her eyes, the roof was gone, most of the house was gone’
BY MITCH DUDEK Staff Reporter November 18, 2013 7:39AM
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Updated: December 20, 2013 6:14AM
WASHINGTON, Ill. — It’s hard to believe Minnie Burgard survived.
Burgard, 82, heard the tornado sirens Sunday, but she just had knee replacement surgery and couldn’t walk down the stairs to her basement.
So she put her cat in her lap, sat on a wood bench in her living room and closed her eyes as her home disintegrated around her.
“She said when she opened her eyes, the roof was gone, most of the house was gone, but for some reason, she was still sitting there,” said Jim Ardis, who is Burgard’s son-in-law as well as the mayor of neighboring Peoria.
“She didn’t have a scratch on her ... and the cat [her name is Jezabel] was OK, too,” Ardis said.
Burgard’s long-odds survival story is one of the more harrowing tales that emerged from the rubble of a tornado that cut a three-mile swath through the town of Washington, about 150 miles southwest of Chicago.
Such stories took on a life of their own on Monday and seemed to provide a measure of hope, distraction and relief to the estimated 250 to 500 families whose homes were badly damaged by the EF-4 tornado that packed winds up to 200 miles an hour.
“It brings tears to your eyes when you think of the people who lost their possessions,” said Gov. Pat Quinn after touring an area that many residents could only describe as a war zone.
Fifteen minutes elapsed between the time authorities in Washington were notified the tornado was coming and when it actually hit.
That advance warning saved countless lives, said Washington Police Chief Don Volk
Tomaz Fleury, who glimpsed the tornado before running to his basement, said it was like “those cartoons where you see the cow flying — there wasn’t a cow, but there was everything else flying.”
A large number of residents in the town of about 15,000 were in churches Sunday morning when the storm passed — and that helped keep down the number of injuries.
“Most people were in church. Not sure we had one church damaged by the storm,” said Washington Mayor Gary Manier.
Todd Cannon, a storm chaser, got too close Sunday. The tornado passed over him, he says.
“It’s not like it is in the movies, there’s no pretty blue center,” said Cannon as he stood next to his beat up SUV that he wedged against the side of a building to stay grounded as the twister passed. His son, Matthew, 6, was with him. “I thought our car was going to go up in it,” said Matthew. Both father and son were unharmed.
Nearby, an elderly man oblivious to tornado sirens as he listened to music on headphones while mowing the lawn, was alerted to danger by a neighbor, said U.S. Rep. Aaron Schock, whose congressional district includes Washington.
Schock was grateful only one person was killed in Washington by the tornado. “I’m really surprised more people didn’t die,” the Peoria Republican said.
Five other people were killed in central and southern Illinois by other tornadoes.
“This is the deadliest series of tornadoes Illinois has ever had in the month of November,” said Quinn.
About 120 people in Washington alone suffered injuries.
There were no reports of missing persons Monday afternoon, Volk said, adding that incidents of looting were limited.
A curfew remained in effect Monday night.
Quinn declared seven counties in Illinois disaster areas, freeing up manpower and resources. A disaster assessment, which might not be complete until Wednesday, needs to be completed before local authorities can apply for federal funds.
The governor said authorities are in the initial stages of assessing the damage for insurance purposes as well as to request funds from the federal government.
Quinn asked tornado victims to “try to keep as good a record as they can of everything that they’ve lost.” He said that will help the state as it seeks a federal disaster declaration.
Beneath a clear blue sky Monday, residents climbed piles of debris to check on their homes.
“This is my open air kitchen,” joked Stephanie Ott, as she stood in the spot where she once cooked for her family.
Contributing: Jon Seidel from Chicago