As horrible as the Washington tornado was, some ask why it wasn’t deadlier
BY MITCH DUDEK Staff Reporter December 8, 2013 7:26PM
The Nov. 17 tornado that struck Washington, Ill., destroyed the home of Bob and Allison Montgomery.
Updated: January 10, 2014 6:14AM
After seeing the destruction from 25 tornadoes that tore through the state last month, amazed observers wondered how there wasn’t a greater loss of life.
The answer, some say, lies in improved forecasting, early warnings and simple faith.
The death toll stands at seven but might have skyrocketed if not for the slightest of right turns.
The change in course occurred in Washington as an EF4 tornado bore down on 500 people inside the Crossroads United Methodist Church near the edge of town.
Huddled in storm shelters inside, dozens of children sang “This Little Light of Mine” and “Jesus Loves Me.”
Half a mile away, at the Apostolic Christian Church, many of the 450 or so people who took refuge in Sunday school rooms — because the church had no shelter — began signing a hymn: “My God is great, there is nothing my God can’t do.”
The tornado, spinning at nearly 200 mph, changed course by several degrees just seconds before impact, splitting the two churches like a perfect field goal.
“It went right between ’em and didn’t damage either one,” said Tim Slagel, 57, who was in Apostolic Christian Church.
“I don’t know what your faith is, but my faith tells me God was directing that tornado,” Slagel said.
The tornado did, however, destroy the home of Bob Montgomery, who lived directly between the churches.
“We’d be glad to take the hit any time if it’s our house versus either church,” said Montgomery, who was attending church with his wife in a neighboring community at the time.
In hindsight, churches were among the safest places to be in Washington, which is about 160 miles southeast of Chicago. And about half the town, with a population of about 15,000, was in one.
“Being a faith-based community really saved us,” said Washington Mayor Gary Manier. “Those churches were spared for a reason.”
For Methodist Pastor Tom Goodell, it’s not that easy.
“It was definitely amazing, but I’m always reluctant to say God turned storms this way or that, because two people died [in the Washington tornado], and many families lost their homes. What do I say to those families? I’m a spokesman for God, but I’m not comfortable making that argument,” Goodell said.
The only church to sustain major damage, Our Savior Lutheran Church, had a wall in the sanctuary blown out and nearly half the roof shingles ripped off. But all 65 people inside survived in the church basement, said Pastor Tom Heren.
St. Patrick’s Catholic Church lies east of the tornado’s path but had the most congregants who lost their homes: 160. Many were at mass.
“Some of those people told me they usually go to 8:30 mass, but decided for some unknown reason to go to the 11 o’clock mass that day,” said the Rev. Stephen Willard.
More than 1,100 homes were badly damaged or destroyed in Washington, which was hit by the most powerful of the 25 twisters that touched down Nov. 17. The rash of tornadoes spread from Southern Illinois to about 60 miles southwest of Chicago.
National Weather Service meteorologist Richard Castro attributed the relatively small loss of life to a mixture of luck and timely warnings.
“It was well-anticipated and forecast that that Sunday had the potential for violent weather,” said Castro. “Some communities had over 20 minutes warning before touchdown. There were 101 tornado warnings issued across the state,” he said. Cellphone alerts, television newscasts and air sirens saved countless lives, officials said.
All but one of the 25 tornadoes caused property damage, said Castro. The lone benign twister petered out over vacant fields.
November’s tornadoes should serve as a warning, said Castro.
“People should not have a complacent mentality. If things had shifted just a little farther north basically, a tornado could have struck the most populated part of the Chicago area,” he said.