PEORIA, Ill. (WMBD) — As many will recall, it began as a fairly calm Sunday.
I remember sitting at the kitchen table and talking to the parents on my son’s 8-and-under hockey team. They were traveling from the Peoria area to the Quad Cities for a game.
My son had just broken his arm the day before playing a game and was out of the lineup. He spent the afternoon at a friend’s house in Washington before he came home Saturday for a pizza dinner that was supposed to cheer him up after getting slashed in the forearm.
Us parents had set up a team chat on that new-fangled thing called Facebook. (or at least new to a lot of us), and I was just clowning around. Here’s one of my posts.
“Ah, Autumn in central Illinois. 70 degrees (right after it was in the 30s a day or two before) and funnel clouds on the ground. Lights flickering. Fun times.”
That was just before 11 a.m., before I knew or anyone really knew the size of the tornados that had just touched down in Washington and in Pekin on Nov. 17, 2013.
In the next few hours, it became clear that what happened was far beyond the scope of what we are used to central Illinois. It wasn’t a joke and people’s lives had been at risk. Turns out those tornados, an EF-4 in Washington and a EF-2 in Pekin, were among the strongest on record in the state for that late in the year.
Debris from the Washington tornado was found as far away as Chicago, according to the National Weather Service in Lincoln.
My Facebook feed started to get a bunch of comments on damage that occurred in Pekin. I called a friend in Washington, a woman who used to be with the Journal Star. She was okay and covering the story there. No one was going to be able to get into that area.
But there was also a story in Pekin. I was a reporter so I got dressed and drove there, through the blinding rain and high wind. To be clear, this wasn’t a tornado but just the storm that accompanied the funnel clouds.
I got there within 45 minutes of the funnel cloud touching down. I was headed south on 8th Street and got as far as Lakeside Cemetery before the roads were blocked by large trees.
Lines were down everywhere. It was still raining but not as far and the sky had gone from black to more of a light grey. There was stillness in the air and it was still warm but not as much as it had been only an hour before.
Already you could hear the hum and buzz of chainsaws and tree trimmers. Yet, there was no screaming. No yelling. No one was in a state of panic. For myself, it was the first time I had seen such devastation. While it was not what was seen several miles to the northeast in Washington, it was still shocking.
The Pekin tornado touched down a few minutes before the one in Washington and cut a path of destruction that began on Sheridan Road and went all the way up to Crescent Drive and beyond. Thankfully, no one was killed and injuries were light. More than 200 homes were heavily damaged though. The 300 block of Sheridan saw many without roofs. Some had imploded.
Here’s my Facebook post from that day:
“… was in the “ground zero: for pekin for hours. it hit most three to four blocks west of Route 29 and two to three blocks east of it.”
One woman stood outside her house calling for her two cats. She didn’t get a response and to this day, I don’t know the fate of those two animals. They had just finished redoing the house that they bought a year prior with “cash.” The roof was gone and so were all the windows.
Talking to residents, they all pretty much said the same thing. They heard a rumble, a roar like a freight train and knew what was coming. They got into a basement or an interior room and held on. It lasted only seconds but it was terrifying, they said.
One family I met managed to get into their basement only seconds before the tornado hit.
Within hours, the area was cordoned off and a curfew was imposed to keep away looters as well as gawkers. The community, however, came out in full force to help their neighbors.
I left there in the late afternoon and headed to the newsroom to write my stories. I spent a lot of time over the next few days in Pekin and elsewhere in Tazewell County on storm coverage.
While Washington got far more attention due to severity and the devastation, for Pekin, their experiences brought their community together as well. People gathered to help. Neighbors worked to clean up the debris and to help find personal items.
Thankfully, no one was killed in Pekin, and those who were injured suffered minor ones. Clean-up was done within weeks but the memories of that morning will last.