Dazed and heartsick, Joann Eads stared absently into space Wednesday as she sat on the curb outside what only the day before had been her trim two-story townhouse on Cedar Drive.
Next to her lay a bottle of blue antacid. Behind her, total devastation.
“You wanna buy a house cheap?” she asked facetiously.
Eads was just one of thousands of people struggling with tears, black humor and hope to piece together their scattered lives and possessions after a series of monster tornadoes unleashed their fury across parts of the southwestern Chicago suburbs Tuesday afternoon.
The storms killed at least 26 people, injured 350 more and caused destruction to homes, businesses, schools and churches on a scale not seen in these parts in more than two decades.
“It was like the devil came to visit,” said Mike Brewer, who safely rode out the twister in the bathroom of his now-mangled pizza parlor in nearby Plainfield.
Although authorities were still totaling the damage, they said it was sure to run into the tens of millions of dollars, if not more. Late Wednesday, President Bush declared Will County a disaster area, making residents and businesses in the area about 30 miles outside Chicago eligible for special federal aid programs and low-interest loans.
After touring some of the hardest hit areas Wednesday morning, Gov. James R. Thompson said the carnage was the most sickening he’d witnessed in his four terms as the state’s chief executive. “In 14 years on the job, I’ve seen a lot of natural disasters,” Thompson confided. "(But) nothing in my personal experience in 14 years compares with this devastation.”
Indeed, there was ample evidence of the awe-inspiring yet fickle power of tornadoes, capable of generating center winds of more than 300 m.p.h.
On one side of Cedar Drive in Crest Hill, one white house remained in mint condition, its television antenna intact and not a single shingle missing. Across the street, where Eads lives, the entire second floor of a row of townhouses was stripped away.
Just down the street, at least eight people died when they were sucked out of the Cresthill Lake apartments and tossed more than 200 yards into a cornfield. Some units were flattened, while in others the furniture and appliances hadn’t moved an inch. In one apartment, the walls of the kitchen had been stripped away, but the china dinner service was still stacked in place in the cabinets.
The nearby field was littered with clothing, bricks, children’s books, furniture, appliances, toys and even four automobiles that somehow had landed on top of one another in a pile.
Tom Kubaitis, a Crest Hill police officer, said emergency workers--including National Guard troops activated to assist in restoring calm--continued to comb the field looking for up to six residents of the apartment complex who had yet to be accounted for.
One who had been accounted for was 12-year-old Brian Strohm, whose lifeless body was found by rescuers as they walked the field in pitch blackness Tuesday night.
On Wednesday, Paul Strohm, Brian’s father, stood in the middle of the field clutching a pink and black children’s bicycle as tears streamed down his face. “I walked past him,” Strohm said of his frantic efforts the night before to find his son. “I knew what was out there. I walked past him three or four times.”
Over in Plainfield, where classes had been scheduled to begin Wednesday, several students gathered outside the rubble of their high school, which had virtually collapsed under the swirling winds.
Becky Edwards, a junior, clutched a shard of wood planking from what had been the stadium bleachers and began to sob when she learned that her favorite science teacher had been killed by falling debris.
A companion, 16-year-old Susan Crook, said she was on a bus that had just arrived back at the school from a varsity tennis match when the tornado hit. “We pulled up and saw everything,” she shuddered. “We took it (the school) for granted. Now we don’t know what we’re going to do.”
When the winds settled, Crook found her Geo Prizm automobile had been blown from one end of the parking lot to the other. “It blew 800 feet and turned around completely in the other direction,” she said.
The Will County coroner’s office said three people were killed at the Plainfield high school--none of them students, even though the storm hit as football and volleyball players were holding practices. Another three bodies were pulled from the wreckage of St. Mary Immaculate Church, including Sister Mary Keenan, a principal of a nearby church school, officers said.
The storm, which sliced a path of destruction several hundred yards wide and 20 miles long, cut power and telephone service to tens of thousands of area residents, although most utilities had been restored by late Wednesday.