Officials Remember Washington Tornadoes: “It Looked Like the End of the World”

One year ago, Washington, Illinois looked like a battle zone. An EF3 tornado roared out of the skies southwest of town just before 11 a.m. It ripped a path 10 miles long through the western side of this Tazewell County community. And just that fast, the lives of a thousand families were turned upside down.

Three people died. One, when he was torn from his home, and two others, later, from injuries they suffered that day. Scores of other Washington residents were injured.

"You just heard this humongous roar," recalled resident David Loy. "Everything being destroyed around you. The house was shaking and everything else. And then silence. And nothing."

It lasted just nine minutes. But when it was over, emergency responders found a devastating sight.

"It looked the tornadoes you see in cartoons," said police chief Don Volk. "I hate to use the word Armageddon, but that's what it looked like out there. It looked like the end of the world."

Police and fire units arriving from surrounding communities found it astounding the loss of life wasn't greater. Many attributed that to the fact that so many residents were in church, and the community's houses of worship were not hit.

Volk said he was amazed that so few people were even trapped.

"The stories you were hearing of peple going down the street, checking neighbors houses and pulling people out," he said. "The citizens here are just great."

But if the loss of life in Washington was relatively low, the damage was off the charts. About 1100 homes suffered some kind of damage, and close to 600 of those were destroyed.

"I'll never forget the sound of tornado sirens that day," said Mayor Gary Manier. "They were so eerie."

Driving through his community, Manier pointed out new home after new home, a resurrection which he admits would have been impossible to visualize one year ago.

"Who would have ever thought we could have gotten this far," he said.

Manier points to his community's determination to clear the rubble quickly, and the thousands who volunteered their time and talents, from as far away as Alaska. Some rebuilding actually began before winter set in. And now, hundreds of new homes stand where that apocalyptic scene greeted the police chief a year ago.

"It's amazing how many people from Chicago have come to volunteer," he said.

In a neighborhood which was completely leveled, lifelong resident Paul White sat on the stoop of his brand new home, watering a new lawn, and taking in the scene of renewal around him.

"Even in the basement, I had about five or six feet of things covering me," he said. "But by God's grace, we're back home."

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