PLAINFIELD, ILL., AUG. 29 -- When it started sprinkling Tuesday afternoon, the Rev. Charles Van Duren walked across the parking lot of St. Mary Immaculate Church to fetch the umbrella from his car next to the rectory.

Without warning, the pastor recalled today, the building's brick wall flew toward him, and he fell unconscious.

When Van Duren awoke, his church that served 1,800 people in this town of 3,800 residents was gone. The six-inch-thick, 20-year-old concrete shell was standing, but its surface appeared to have been raked with machine-gun fire, and its stained-glass windows littered the parking lot like pieces of a brightly colored jigsaw puzzle.

The steel cross atop the back of the church was bent upside down. The soybean field across the road was shorn of its crop and sown with crumpled cars, flung by the wind.

"I'm lucky I'm alive," Van Duren said today, making the sign of the cross. One eye was blackened, several ribs bruised and six stitches were covered by a large bandage on his forehead. "You should have seen me last night. I was a mess."

That was when four dark funnels fell from the sky with almost no warning, flipping cars, spinning houses and upending lives.

The worst barrage of twisters here in almost 25 years rumbled for at least eight miles down an area known as "Tornado Alley" in Will County about 3:30 p.m. CDT Tuesday and crashed through several suburbs near Joliet, about 35 miles southwest of Chicago.

Authorities reported that at least 24 people were killed, more than 350 injured and at least six are missing. Scores of homes were leveled, and a path of destruction was visible hundreds of yards wide at some points, a mile at others.

At least 12 people died here, including two nuns and a lay person at the church and its school building and three adults at Plainfield High School just around the corner. There, about 175 people survived a tornado that razed the school and tossed buses around like toys.

Nine people were killed at a collapsed apartment complex in nearby Crest Hill, including seven whose bodies were swept into a cornfield.

"I can't understand why we didn't have hundreds of fatalities," said Gov. James R. Thompson (R) after touring the county and declaring it a state disaster area this morning. He called it the worst natural trauma that he had seen in 14 years in Illinois. Later in the day, President Bush declared Will County a federal disaster area.

Many residents marveled today at the outpouring of community support after the tragedy.

"We had more people here to help, it's wonderful," said Sue Wiers, the parish business manager. "There are people everywhere."

At the Red Cross emergency center in an elementary school near the virtually untouched downtown block of shops, tiny tables were piled with donated clothes.

"They're coming in bags and boxes, but no one's coming to pick it up," a volunteer said. "We've had only two families."

Officials said that eight people spent the night at the center and that dozens were taken into private homes.

"They're going from one extreme to the other -- from generosity above and beyond to pure greed," said Mark Daniels, standing guard in front of his destroyed gun shop with a 9-mm pistol strapped to his side and griping about some merchants who doubled the price of film and shovels.

Daniels shook his head in disbelief as he looked at the church, a view that had been obscured by a grove of trees a day earlier.

A trash dumpster had been hurled about a block and hung from a 30-foot tree with no branches. Ribbons of metal, formerly roofing and siding material, were wrapped tightly around the few trees standing. A few feet from the gun store, a van lay on its side, crushed to no more than 18 inches thick.

"When I saw the church, I said, 'My building's not going to be there,' " said Jim Vargo, whose pizza place stood battered with roof agape in the same parking lot as the gun shop. "I was surprised there was this much."

Vargo's insurance agent worked in an office next door, but little of it remained.

"I know it's a bad time," Vargo said he asked the agent, "but am I covered?"

In places, the devastation seemed as endless today as the blue sky or the flat vista that stretches in every direction.

Cars thrown on rooftops were used as posts to string yellow tape reading "Do Not Cross" around the high school. Traffic creaked along the main street as slowly as any during a big-city rush hour. Police and members of the National Guard were everywhere.

Amid the rumble and splinters, Plainfield residents took what they could find.

"We got popcorn," Trudy Kaiser beamed, as she emerged from the basement of what had been her sister's house.

Two pictures were knocked off the single wall standing at Carol Russell's house. She found them in the basement and gently placed a muddied photograph of her parents next to a picture of her son, smiling from behind shattered glass.

"It was a beautiful house," she said, her voice trailing away as she picked over the debris.

A DEADLY ROSTER

MAJOR TORNADO SYSTEMS IN THE UNITED STATES SINCE 1952

March 21-22, 1952: Arkansas, Missouri and Tennessee, 208 killed, 1,154 injured.

June 8, 1953: Michigan and Ohio, 142 killed.

April 11-12, 1965: Indiana, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin and Illinois, 51 tornadoes reported, 271 killed, 1,600 injured.

April 3-4, 1974: Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Kentucky, West Virginia, Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia and Virginia, 148 tornadoes reported, 350 dead.

March 28, 1984: North Carolina and South Carolina, 24 tornadoes, 67 killed, more than 800 injured.

May 31, 1985: Ohio, Pennsylvania and Ontario, Canada, 90 killed, more than 700 injured.