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Couple survive tornado: ‘I closed my eyes. . . . I looked up: Sky’

DDempsey his sJ.C. DDempsey his wife Shelihuddled their basement while tornado destroyed their house Downstate Washington. J.C. Dempsey 48 lives

Don Dempsey and his son J.C. Don Dempsey and his wife, Shelia, huddled in their basement while a tornado destroyed their house in Downstate Washington. J.C. Dempsey, 48, lives around the corner. He was miles away when his house was flattened. The family dog, a poodle named Ella, was inside. He and his dad heard whimpering and found Ella nestled under a staircase that had flipped over. “It’s not a happy ending, but it’s the best I could hope for. . . . That dog is my daughter’s best friend,” J.C. said. | Mitch Dudek~Sun-Times

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Updated: December 19, 2013 6:32AM



WASHINGTON, Ill. — Shelia Dempsey, 70, had just gotten home from church and the grocery store and was putting cranberries and sausage in the fridge and getting ready to make pancakes, unaware a tornado was seconds away.

Her husband, Don, 71, a retired banker, switched on the TV at their Washington home and heard part of a news bulletin: Tornado. Take cover.

Shelia had heard the tornado siren, but they live near a firehouse — she thought it was coming from a fire engine.

They looked out their front door to see for themselves.

“I could see the corn stalks swirling in the air,” she said.

They headed for the basement of their brick ranch house. Don Dempsey held his wife as they huddled in a corner.

“I closed my eyes. The next thing, I looked up: sky,” his wife said. “It was over in about 60 seconds.

“People always say it sounds like freight train coming . That’s true,” Don Dempsey said.

Half their basement was obliterated. The side where the Dempseys huddled was intact. A set of wine glasses sat on a rack nearby, undisturbed.

They used a bar stool to climb back to the ground level, hoping nothing would collapse on them.

Almost immediately, Don and several neighbors began searching houses for survivors who might be trapped.

They pulled an elderly couple, both pinned under rubble, to safety.

As they continued to help other neighbors, they smalled natural gas and could here it hissing, Don said.

“I can’t stop shaking,” Shelia said about 7 p.m. Sunday as she sat in a Salvation Army bus, not exactly sure where she was going to spend the night — or any night in the coming weeks.

“Where do you start? We’re 70 and 71 years old. . . . So you start over I guess,” she said.

A few hours after the tornado struck, Shelia asked a neighbor’s son to grab a few keepsakes from her home. Moments later, the boy emerged from the rubble with picture albums, a wedding ring and a pearl necklace that was a wedding gift from her husband.

One of the Dempsey’s sons, J.C. Demspey, 48, lives around the corner. He was several miles outside of town when the tornado hit, but he rushed home to find his house flattened. The only way he could tell it was his house was when he saw his cars were parked in the driveway.

The family dog, a poodle named Ella, was inside.

After several unsuccessful attempts to find the dog, J.C. and his dad decided to try one more time before sunset.

After about 10 minutes, they heard whimpering and found Ella nestled under a staircase that had flipped over.

“It’s not a happy ending, but it’s the best I could hope for. . . . That dog is my daughter’s best friend.”



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