Weather Updates

Downstate tornado survivors say ordeal proves ‘Washington’s a special place”

Updated: December 30, 2013 12:34PM

WASHINGTON, Ill. — Eight-year-old Sean Walsh was shivering in a pair of wet socks at the end of his driveway when his mom and sister found him.

“We started running toward him, yelling, ‘It’s OK, Sean. It’s mommy and sissy,’ ” his mother, Barbara Walsh, said Thursday at a Thanksgiving celebration in Downstate Washington, recounting the scene she found when she returned home from church after a tornado destroyed her family’s house on Nov. 17.

Several dozen families from St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in Washington ate together Thursday afternoon at the Knights of Columbus Hall on the town square.

Before the tornado hit the morning of Nov. 17, Barbara Walsh’s family attended the 8:30 a.m. mass at the church. Her husband, Miles, and Sean, went home after mass. Barbara and their daughter, Katherine, 13, stayed so Barbara could teach Sunday school.

“I was getting ready to walk out the door [of the church] and that’s when the sirens started going off,” said Barbara, 44.

She and her daughter took cover but left several minutes later after the sirens stopped. It wasn’t until they were about halfway home that they realized what had happened.

“I looked up and saw houses completely flattened,” Barbara Walsh said. “There was debris flying around.”

She tried to call 911, but her cellphone had no service after the storm.

“We couldn’t find our house. We couldn’t find our street,” she said. “The signs, the landmarks — they were all gone.”

Her daughter recognized a neighbor standing in front of his ruined house. That’s when they saw Sean in the driveway.

“I’m looking for shoes and I turn around and the 14-year-old neighbor boy had taken his shoes off his own feet and given them to my son,” Barbara said.

In the backyard, Barbara found her husband, an Illinois State Police trooper, crawling into his squad car, trying to call 911 over the radio.

Miles Walsh, 45, had heard the sirens and ushered his son to the basement. When the sirens stopped, he went upstairs to grab the weather radio.

“I opened the front door and was completely unprepared for what I saw,” he said.

The tornado was a block away. Miles grabbed Sean, rushed back to the basement and covered his son as the twister tore apart their home in less than 15 seconds.

“If you can think of what it sounds like in a basement with 15 or 20 people jumping up and down upstairs — that’s what it sounded like,” he said.

The piles of rubble — the twisted metal, broken glass and overturned cars — remained in much of Washington on Thursday.

For some families, like John and Kay Grillot, who also lost their home, it’s a reminder that family and friends are what matter most.

“I’m so grateful for the people who have helped us, housed us and fed us,” Kay said. “It’s just been a real blessing this year.”

More than 1,000 homes in Washington were damaged or destroyed in the tornado.

“I’ll never forget the feeling of not knowing whether my husband and son were still alive,” Barbara said. “For me, Thanksgiving’s about our family being healthy and safe.”

The Walsh family plans to begin rebuilding on the same site in March and they hope to move into their new home in October, Miles said.

In the meantime, they’re living in a home donated by someone they had never met.

A Washington woman volunteered to move in with her mother, so the displaced tornado victims could have a home, Miles said.

“That’s ultimately what I’m thankful for,” he said. “The people in this town have come together in a way that I never could have predicted or expected. Washington’s a special place.”

© 2014 Sun-Times Media, LLC. All rights reserved. This material may not be copied or distributed without permission. For more information about reprints and permissions, visit To order a reprint of this article, click here.