Elderly tornado survivors found in rubble

A Harrisburg, Ill., neighborhood after the tornado hit (ABC7's Ben Bradley)

March 1, 2012 2:05:16 PM PST
Hours after a tornado destroyed their home, an elderly couple in Harrisburg, Ill., was located inside the bathtub where they sought shelter during a storm that killed 13 people across the Midwest.

Six people died in that storm when an EF4 tornado tore through Harrisburg on Wednesday. Four women and two men died there. Five have been publicly identified, their ages ranging from 22 to 75 years old.

Linda Ayotte is thankful that her elderly sister and her husband survived despite a direct hit on their home.

"She didn't get in the bathtub all the way when the house took off," Ayotte said. "and her neighbor, who's deaf, heard them. He can't hear, but he heard their voices and told her son, 'They're in there, I hear them.' And he got them out."

There is little left of their home or anything else in that entire subdivision. It is one of three strike zone locations where this killer tornado touched down. A bathtub was the best place for many to seek safety in the storm.

"She felt it hit. And then they were found alert and awake whenever their son came and found them," said Jennifer Cain, pointing to a spot 50 yards from where the home stood. Cain said the bathtub was on top of those two survivors.

What's left? A teddy bear, books, eyeglasses ? life's little things that to many are all they have left.

"I just know that this means something, I'm sure, to this family. And I want to make sure this family gets it back," said Harrisburg Mayor Eric Gregg, holding a picture of a man and two boys.

Harrisburg's Chicago-born mayor now finds himself leading a town into an uncertain future.

"I want these lives to be made whole again. We have lost six loved ones in our community," Gregg said. "Of course, those lives will never be back. If we can help in whatever way we can, a picture that belongs to someone, we want to give it back to them."

Jeff Rann drove through the darkness to reach his parents to found his dad's body buried in rubble at his family home. He found his mom barely alive. Rann and his mother were able to exchange words. She said, "It hurts, it hurts." He was able to direct paramedics to reach her, but by the time they reached the hospital she had died. That couple in their 60's is just two of the six people who died in the tornado.

A strip mall with a Sports Authority, an eyeglass store, and a dozen other stores was destroyed.

The National Weather Service says this storm included peak wind gusts of 180 miles per hour.

The damage was reminiscent of the 2004 tornado that tore through Utica, Ill., near Ottawa. Eight people died in that storm as well.

Sirens went off about a half hour prior to the storms' arrival at 5 a.m. Wednesday.

Governor Pat Quinn toured Harrisburg Wednesday and has declared the region a disaster area.

"Until you see it, it is hard to believe," Quinn said. "It is very important that we help the people of Harrisburg and southern Illinois recover, and that's why I declared it a disaster area. We're having our state resources applied to help the people out."

Quinn said about 100 people or more were injured.

"The property damage is very extensive, and one of the most important things we have to do is calculate that damage," he said. "We want to be filing with the federal government an application for federal disaster relief, but I will say this, the people of southern Illinois, there are so many volunteers, they came from everywhere. They helped their neighbors, and it was really inspiring as they went door to door in some of the residential neighborhoods when they got the warning. It was 27 minutes before 5 a.m. Folks got out of their beds and went knocking on the doors of their neighbors to make sure they were going to safety, and that saved a lot of lives."

Mayor Eric Gregg said he has no doubt that the city is going to rebuild. Quinn said the state is already applying for federal assistance by calculating the damage.

"We had a flood last year there that was very bad. We learned how to do it, and we have to apply those lessons to making sure everyone who has sustained terrible damage from the tornado, and the commercial areas -- that strip mall was utterly obliterated -- it is very important to help our businesses and families recover and get back on their feet," Quinn said.