Darrell Osman raced to his mother's home after a tornado slammed into downstate Harrisburg this morning, 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.
"My mother was a Christian," Osman said as he and his sister sorted through twisted debris and chunks of pink insulation at the site of their mother's duplex. “I know she's in a better place. That is the only thing getting me through this.”
Osman was among six people killed and about 100 injured by the powerful tornado that flattened whole blocks of the city of 9,000, authorities said. Between 250 to 300 homes were damaged or destroyed and about 25 businesses were badly hit, including a strip mall, according to the Saline County sheriff's office.
“It looks like a bomb went off,” said Lt. Tracy Felty.
Gov. Pat Quinn has declared the city a disaster area.
Margaret Shimkus said she woke to the sound of loud crashing and shattering glass, and ran to her bathtub for shelter as her home began flying apart.
“Everything around me was going to pieces," Shimkus said. “All I can tell you is I was praying and asking God to please take care of me and take care of my family.”
Only the walls of her home were left standing.
The tornado, which hit at 4:56 a.m., has been rated an EF4 by the National Weather Service, the second-highest rating given to twisters. Meteorologist Rick Shanklin said the tornado's path was 200 yards wide with top winds up to 170 mph.
The sheriff's office said it has conducted house-to-house searches and directed people to a shelter at the city's First Baptist Church.
Among them was Danielle Mathews, who heard the tornado siren and immediately called her friend Angela Capps at the same apartment complex and told her to take cover.
The two said they planned to stay the night Wednesday at the church because of power outages at their apartment building. “I have no family here except for my kids,” Capps said. “Church was the best place to come.”
The American Red Cross provided cots and food for displaced families who came to the church. High school students and area residents carried cases of water into the church, while church members and Red Cross volunteers prepared food.
Capps’ and Mathews’ children played with toys provided by the church while Mathews tended to her 6 1/2-month-old baby. Capps said her children have a history of asthma and seizures, so they needed a place with electricity.
Capps and Mathews said the damage to their apartments was minimal compared to other damage in Harrisburg. Mathews said her apartment has a broken window and a tree limb through the side of the house. Neither they nor their children were harmed.
“Nobody’s hurt, just high emotions,” Capps said.
The two friends said they were trying to be strong for their children, who were scared by the storm and damage.
“Even right now we’re emotionally fine,” Capps said. “We haven’t cried yet, for the kids. I’m sure we’ll go in the bathroom eventually and bawl our eyes out.”
Pat Talley, 76, and her husband, Kay, were in bed listening to weather reports on the radio when they learned the tornado was headed straight for Harrisburg.
They got out of bed and tried to get to a hallway closet, Pat Talley said. She had just climbed inside, but her husband was still in the hallway when the tornado hit.
"It just roared," she said Wednesday evening at the First Baptist Church on Main Street, which was serving as a Red Cross shelter.
"The sirens," Talley said. "I don't think I'll ever forget that sound."
Talley and her husband were not injured, and their house didn't suffer major damage. But homes just two blocks away were destroyed, she said.
"There's just so much damage, it's like a dream," she said.
A long hallway and meeting room in the church were filled with 5-gallon buckets, mops, laundry detergent and other donated supplies.
The church's basement was staffed with Red Cross volunteers and nurses, but only a handful of people were planning to stay the night there.
One of those people, Roosevelt Johnson, 52, said he was staying in the church because his home had lost power.
"I'll be honest, it was scary," Roosevelt said of the storm. "I was so surprised. It happened so fast."
Police in Harrisburg blocked roads leading to the damaged area Wednesday night, enforcing a curfew that took effect at 6 p.m.
Debbie Porter, a volunteer for the American Red Cross, said the shelter was opened by 7:30 a.m., about three hours after the tornado hit. She said by noon more than 100 volunteers had signed in and left their contact information so they could help.
Porter said while there are many volunteers today, the community will be in more need of them within the next few days for cleanup and to sort through possessions from damaged property.
Carbondale Mayor Joel Fritzler, who was at the church as a Red Cross volunteer, said communities will continue to help during the week.
William Recktenwald, a former Chicago Tribune editor who lives in nearby Karbers Ridge, passes Harrisburg every day on his way to work at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale. This morning, he was about five miles west of Harrisburg when he started seeing what looked like “cotton candy in cornfields,” which he figured was insulation.
“Then I started seeing pieces of metal from roofs and then entire roofs,” said Recktenwald, a journalism instructor.
As he approached Harrisburg, he saw “dozens” of emergency vehicles from the region heading toward Harrisburg. In the city, he saw several homes and businesses demolished, and damage to the Harrisburg Medical Center, which remained open to treat the injured.
The storms also raked Kansas, Missouri, Kentucky and Tennessee, killing at least six more people in addition to the six in Illinois. In Missouri, one person was killed in a trailer park in the town of Buffalo. Two more fatalities were reported in the Cassville and Puxico areas of the state.
Later Wednesday, three people were reported killed in eastern Tennessee — two in Cumberland County and another in DeKalb County as storms collapsed homes and downed power lines there.
An apparent twister rolled through Branson in Missouri just before 1 a.m. and seemed to hopscotch up the city's main roadway, ripping roofs off hotels and damaging some of the city's famed music theaters dangerously close to the start of the heavy tourism season. More than 30 people were reported hurt, mostly with cuts and bruises.
The tornadoes were spawned by a powerful storm system that blew down from the Rockies on Tuesday and headed across the Ohio and Tennessee river valleys toward the Mid-Atlantic region. Corey Mead, lead forecaster at the U.S. 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.
From Tuesday night into Wednesday morning, at least 16 tornado sightings were reported from Nebraska and Kansas across southern Missouri to Illinois and Kentucky, according to the storm center, an arm of the National Weather Service.
The National Weather Service has recorded four tornadoes within 50 miles of Harrisburg since 2005.
Those storms occurred on Jan. 13, 2005, March 1, 2007, Jan. 29, 2008 and March 28, 2009, NWS meteorologist Charles Mott said.
"With the way things have gone this particular winter, I would not say it's early," Mott said, "particularly with how mild the temperatures got."
Mott added that he "wouldn't be surprised" if this year is an intense tornado period.
Cold air remains in the region and can trigger intense storms when mixed with recent warm temperatures, Mott noted.
"We just happened to catch lightning in a bottle, so to speak," Mott said.
Tribune reporter Ryan Haggerty contributed.
Contributing: Associated PressCopyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun