- Associated Press - Wednesday, February 29, 2012

HARRISBURG, Ill. (AP) — Twisters roared through the nation’s heartland in the early morning darkness Wednesday, flattening entire blocks of homes in small-town Illinois and Kansas and killing at least nine people.

Winds also ripped through the country music mecca of Branson, Mo., damaging some of the city’s famous theaters just days before the start of the busy tourist season.

In Harrisburg, a town of 9,000 in southern Illinois, residents sorted through piles of debris and remembered their dead while the winds still howled around them.

Not long after the storm, Darrell Osman raced to his mother’s home, arriving just in time to speak to her before she was taken to a hospital with a head injury, a severe cut to her neck and a broken arm and leg.

“She was conscious. I wouldn’t say she was coherent. There were more mumbles than anything,” he said. “She knew we were there.”

Mary Osman died a short time later.

In Branson, an apparent twister seemed to hopscotch up the city’s main roadway. At least 37 people were reported hurt, mostly with cuts and bruises.

“We were blessed with several things — the time of year and certainly the time of day, when people were not in their vehicles or outdoors,” said Mayor Raeanne Presley, noting that during Branson’s peak season, up to 60,000 visitors would have been in the city on any given day and staying in many of the hotels that were damaged.

“If it was a week later, it’d be a different story,” said Bill Tirone, assistant general manager for the 530-room downtown Hilton hotel, where the intense winds shattered windows and sucked furniture away. Hotel workers were able to get all guests to safety.

John Moore, owner of the damaged Cakes-n-Creams ‘50s Diner, said the tornado seemed to target the city’s main strip, plowing through the entertainment district and a convention center.

“The theater next to me kind of exploded. It went everywhere,” Moore said. “The hotels on the two sides of me lost their roofs.”

Back in Harrisburg, where six people were killed, scientists said the tornado was an EF4, the second-highest rating given to twisters based on damage.

The storm was 200 yards wide with winds up to 170 mph, meteorologist Rick Shanklin said.

The winds were strong enough to blow the walls off some rooms at the Harrisburg Medical Center, leaving disheveled beds and misplaced furniture. The staff had enough warning to move the most endangered patients. Then they heard the walls collapse, officials said.

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