WASHINGTON, Ill. — Dozens of tornadoes and intense thunderstorms swept across the Midwest on Sunday, causing extensive damage in several central Illinois communities, killing at least six people, injuring dozens more, and prompting officials at Chicago’s Soldier Field to evacuate the stands and delay the Bears football game.
“The whole neighborhood’s gone. The wall of my fireplace is all that is left of my house,” said Michael Perdun, speaking by cellphone from the hard-hit town of Washington, where he said his neighborhood was wiped out in a matter of seconds.
An elderly man and his sister were killed when a tornado hit their home around noon in the rural community of New Minden, coroner Mark Styninger said. A third person died in Washington, while two others perished in Massac County in the far southern part of the state, said Patti Thompson of the Illinois Emergency Management Agency.
By mid-afternoon, with communications difficult and many roads impassable, it remained unclear how many people were killed or hurt by the string of unusually strong late-season tornadoes. In a news release, the Illinois National Guard said it had dispatched 10 firefighters and three vehicles to Washington to assist with search and recovery operations.
Several blocks of houses had been erased from the landscape in the rural community of 16,000, where Illinois State Police Trooper Dustin Pierce said the tornado cut a path from one end of town to the other, knocking down power lines, uprooting trees and rupturing gas lines.
“I went over there immediately after the tornado, walking through the neighborhoods, and I couldn’t even tell what street I was on,” Washington Alderman Tyler Gee told WLS-TV.
At OSF Saint Francis Medical Center in Peoria, spokeswoman Amy Paul said that 37 patients had been treated, eight with injuries ranging from broken bones to head injuries that were serious enough to be admitted. Methodist Medical Center in Peoria treated more than a dozen, but none of them was seriously hurt.
Steve Brewer, Methodist Medical Center’s chief operating officer, said that doctors and other medical professionals were setting up a temporary emergency care center to treat the injured before transporting them to hospitals, while others were dispatched to search through the rubble for survivors.
By nightfall, Trooper Pierce said there were reports of looting in Washington.
About 90 minutes after the tornado destroyed homes in Washington, the storm darkened downtown Chicago. As the rain and high winds slammed into the area, officials at Soldier Field evacuated the stands and ordered the Bears and the Baltimore Ravens off the field. Fans were allowed back to their seats shortly after 2 p.m., and the game resumed after about a two-hour delay.
Just how many tornadoes hit was unclear Sunday afternoon. According to the National Weather Service’s Web site, 65 tornadoes had struck, the bulk of them in Illinois. But meteorologist Matt Friedlein said the total might drop because emergency workers, tornado spotters and others often report the same tornado.
At 11 a.m., Weather Service officials confirmed that a tornado had touched down near the central Illinois community of East Peoria, about 150 miles southwest of Chicago. Within an hour, tornadoes were reported in Washington, Metamora, Morton and other central Illinois communities.
“This is a very dangerous situation,” said Russell Schneider, director of the Weather Service’s Storm Prediction Center. About 53 million people in 10 states were “at significant risk for thunderstorms and tornadoes,” he said.
Parts of Illinois, Indiana, southern Michigan and western Ohio were at the greatest risk of seeing tornadoes, large hail and damaging winds, agency officials said.
Strong winds and atmospheric instability were expected to sweep across the central Plains before pushing into the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast. Many of the storms were expected to become super cells, with the potential to produce tornadoes and large hail.