A woman searches for valuables in her mother's home after it was destroyed… (Scott Olson, Getty Images )
Reporting from Harrisburg, Ill — .
Nowhere in this tornado-devastated town is the heartbreak of lost lives felt more deeply than on Brady Street.
A short avenue in a tight-knit neighborhood, it was home to five neighbors and friends who died in an overnight twister that churned with 180-mph winds and tore an eight-mile path through Harrisburg and surrounding areas. Ten new duplexes had stood on the street. After the storm, only three remained.
"We're in disbelief," said Dena McDonald, daughter of victim Mary Ruth Osman. McDonald found an empty lot Thursday where her mother's home once stood.
"There are no words to describe this," she said, watching her husband dig through the debris. Cinder blocks littered the ground like discarded Lego pieces. Refrigerators and cars lay crushed beneath mountains of plywood and siding. Family photos, bank statements, holiday cards were strewn around the neighborhood, soaking in puddles and sticking out from collapsed roofs.
The tornadoes that struck Illinois, Missouri, Tennessee and Kentucky early Wednesday killed at least a dozen people and injured about 100. The National Weather Service predicted that new storms Friday could produce another round of tornadoes.
"It's just devastating," said Danny Morse, who with his wife built the neighborhood's 10 duplexes over the last eight years. "One night you go to bed and everything's fine and the next morning you see this.... It's all gone."
Nearby, only a bare concrete slab remained of Jaylynn Ferrell's home. Ferrell, who lived next to Osman, also died in the storm.
The 22-year-old, who worked in the intensive care unit at Harrisburg Medical Center, grew up in the area and was working toward a bachelor's degree in nursing, relatives said. "A go-getter" who attended First Baptist Church in Harrisburg, Ferrell "would always go the extra mile to better herself," said her paternal grandmother, Ann Ferrell.
Her maternal grandmother, Anita Peters, said family and friends were numb. "We know she's gone, but we're all firm Christians and we know she's in heaven," Peters said.
Lynda Hull, 74, moved in to a duplex on Brady Street about a year ago after the death of her husband, Dwight. On Wednesday morning, her body was found under a collapsed wall.
"When Dwight died, she'd said God just worked everything out for her," said her sister, Kay Bridewell, 61. "The duplex was beautiful, and Lynda loved her neighbors."
Hull found a welcoming community on Brady Street, where people looked out for one another, Bridewell said. "She was always taking food to somebody who was sick," she said.
Randy and Donna Mae Rann, who both died in the storm, were good friends with Hull, family members said. Hull used to joke that the younger Ranns, ages 61 and 66, had adopted her because they shared meals with her so often, said Hull's granddaughter, Lyndi Bowman, taking a break from digging through her grandmother's belongings.
Donna Mae Rann was planning to retire from her job with the U.S. Forest Service in less than two weeks, said her brother, Neal Patterson.
Patterson said he too was having trouble coming to terms with the magnitude of the destruction.
"It's like you keep replaying a movie in your mind, and it's about somebody else's life, not your life, and you'll be able to switch it off and everything will be back to normal," Patterson said Thursday, after standing on the concrete slab that once supported his sister's home.
The tornado touched down about seven miles southwest of Harrisburg and struck town at 4:56 a.m., the National Weather Service said Thursday. It cut a path as wide as three football fields. More than 200 homes and about 25 businesses were destroyed or badly damaged, the agency said, before the tornado dissipated about two miles east of town.
The identity of a sixth Harrisburg victim had not been released Thursday.
Haggerty and Groeninger reported from Harrisburg. Tribune reporters Ted Gregory and Erin Meyer in Chicago contributed to this report.