HARRISBURG, Ill. — Jeff Rann had ample warning that terrible weather was approaching before dawn. A frantic call to his wife from his mother-in-law alerted them to reports that a tornado was barreling down, and Mr. Rann heard the deafening wail of storm sirens.
He was among those who survived the weather’s passing assault Wednesday, his home untouched. Yet just two blocks away in the southern Illinois town of Harrisburg, population 9,000, Mr. Rann’s parents were not as fortunate.
Mr. Rann raced through the darkness in his pickup truck to his parents’ duplex but saw instantly there was nothing left, natural gas whistling eerily as it spewed from the property’s severed meter. In the mud of a debris-strewn field, Mr. Rann found the body of his father, 65-year-old Randy Rann, and his mother, 62-year-old Donna Rann.
“She just said: ‘It hurts. It hurts,’” Mr. Rann said of his mother, who had been looking forward to early retirement next month but who died a short time later at a hospital.
Caught in the relatively uncommon night-time twister, the Ranns were among six people killed when blocks of homes in Harrisburg were flattened by overnight storms that raked the nation’s midsection, killing at least 12 people in three states.
In southern Missouri, one person was killed in a Buffalo trailer park while two more fatalities were reported in the Cassville and Puxico areas. A tornado hopscotched through the main thoroughfare of Missouri country music mecca Branson, damaging some of the city’s famous theaters just days before the start of the town’s crucial tourist season.
Three people were reported killed in eastern Tennessee — two in Cumberland County and another in DeKalb County.
And in Kansas, much of tiny Harveyville was in shambles from what state officials said was an EF2 tornado packing wind speeds of 120 to 130 mph.
At least 16 tornadoes were reported from Nebraska and Kansas across southern Missouri to Illinois and Kentucky, according to the Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla., a branch of the National Weather Service.
In Harrisburg, which has a rich coal-mining history, Mayor Eric Gregg called the tornado strike “heartbreaking.” The weather service preliminarily listed the tornado as an EF4, the second-highest rating given to twisters based on damage. Scientists said the tornado was 200 yards wide with winds up to 170 mph.
Adding to the danger, it hit as many slept — a timing that research meteorologist Harold Brooks called unusual but “not completely uncommon.”
Mr. Brooks, with the NOAA National Severe Storms Laboratory in Norman, Okla., said perhaps 10 percent of tornadoes happen between midnight and 6 a.m., a time when the danger level rises because the storms are harder to spot and it’s harder to get the word out.
“If you’re asleep, you’re less likely going to hear anything, any warning message on the danger,” Mr. Brooks said.
That didn’t appear to be the case in Harrisburg, where Mr. Gregg later Wednesday expressed gratitude for the keen eye of local weather spotters he credited with ultimately saving lives.