Residents of a small northern Illinois farming community that took a direct hit from a half-mile-wide tornado were allowed back into the area Saturday to assess damage and salvage what they could.
The DeKalb County Sheriff’s Office bused residents into Fairdale at 7 a.m. so they could begin to take stock of what was left of their property. Seeing the wreckage up close for the first time since Thursday’s storms left some amazed that they survived.
“I thought my parents were dead,” said 32-year-old Adam Davis, who hopped into his truck Thursday and raced along with the tornado in the hopes of getting to his parents’ house and rescuing them before the twister struck. He found them standing in their doorway frozen in disbelief and grabbed them just in time.
On Saturday, he was helping collect what could be salvaged from his childhood home, now full of debris, its roof ripped off and its windows broken.
“It’s not necessarily the mementos yet; it’s the essentials for now. One step at a time,” he said.
Eight tornadoes roared across northern and central Illinois during Thursday’s storms, the National Weather Service confirmed Saturday. The strongest hit Fairdale, where two people were killed. That tornado also injured 22 people.
The weather service gave it a preliminary EF4 rating – its second strongest – with winds of between 180 and 200 mph. It was a half-mile wide and remained on the ground for at least 28.7 miles, a record long path for that part of Illinois.
Al Zammuto, a 60-year-old machinist, was preparing to inspect what was left of the roof on a former schoolhouse that he had been transforming into his home over the past year. He will have to start over.
“I don’t know how much of the roof came off,” he said. “I’m going to climb a ladder later today and see.”
Zammuto was staying with his sister down the road, and many of the displaced appeared to have been taken in by friends and relatives. No one stayed overnight at a shelter set up at the fire station in nearby Kirkland, said deputy fire chief Mike Stott.
In all, some 70 buildings were destroyed or damaged in Fairdale, authorities said. Another 50 buildings were hit in nearby Rochelle.
All buildings have been searched, but not all residents have been accounted for, so cadaver dogs are being used in parts of DeKalb County, the Illinois State Police said late Friday.
The tornado blew numerous vehicles from nearby interstates, and troopers helped rescue a trapped driver in an overturned semi-trailer.
One of the tornadoes also struck the Summerfield Zoo in the city of Belvidere, killing an emu and a black swan.
As the cleanup began, tales of survival continued to emerge.
Kelly Newman, 46, lost her Rochelle home. For her, the storm began with a moment of playful wonder at the size of the hail. She ran outside to collect some of the pieces to put it in the freezer to show her children.
“Then I noticed to the southwest there was a huge black funnel thing, but it didn’t look like a tornado because it was just way too wide,” she said.
But the telltale train-like roar sent them and their 19-year-old daughter running for the basement. The house cracked and collapsed around them, raining down debris and a dusting of what she described as “muddy soot.”
The family survived, and several police officers helped free her husband, who had been trapped nearly upside down between two collapsed walls.
“We’re alive, we were spared. Our lives were saved,” she said.
Associated Press writer Teresa Crawford contributed to this report from Rochelle.
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