- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 21, 2004

From combined dispatches

Searchers pulled eight bodies from the rubble of a tornado-flattened tavern yesterday in Illinois, a day after dozens of twisters tore through the Midwest.

Authorities said they do not think anyone else is missing. Coroner Jody Bernard said the dead, who were found in various locations of the Milestone Tavern in Utica, ranged in age from 18 to 81.

The twister cut a wide swath of destruction through this small town 90 miles southwest of Chicago, turning homes and businesses into piles of brick and splintered wood. More than 10 people were taken to hospitals, and at least six remained there Wednesday afternoon.

Five persons were pulled alive from the rubble shortly after the storm hit Tuesday night.

Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich visited Utica and other communities and declared four counties disaster areas. Federal Emergency Management Agency officials planned to visit today to see whether they qualify for disaster relief.

The National Weather Service Storm Prediction Center said it had unconfirmed reports of 51 tornadoes Tuesday, most of them in Illinois and Indiana, where at least five persons were injured, with other sightings in Iowa, Nebraska and Oklahoma. Although the peak tornado season in North America runs from March to early July, this season had been relatively calm until Tuesday.

In Kokomo, Ind., more than 30 teenagers were attending a party in the Skating Arena when a tornado tore off the building’s roof. Employees saw the twister approaching in time to give a warning, and no injuries were reported.

“You know the rides they have at amusement parks, where the roof raises and then drops like it’s going to hit you? That’s what it was like,” said Jill Foster, sponsor of one group of skaters.

In Utica, one man who had been in the Milestone Tavern before the storm stuck said patrons refused to leave, saying they thought it was the safest place in town.

When the storm struck at 6 p.m., patrons and residents of the century-old building housing the tavern apparently fled to the basement, where the storm sent the structure tumbling down on them.

Mr. Blagojevich declared four Illinois counties to be disaster areas. He called the devastation “humbling … a reminder of how precious life is and how uncertain and short it is.”

An elementary school, part of a grain elevator, dozens of houses and a number of businesses were heavily damaged in the town, where people said they fled to basements when warning sirens sounded minutes before the storm hit.

Four of the survivors from the tavern were hospitalized.

Damage was also heavy in parts of Joliet, southwest of Chicago, though injuries across the region were few and generally not serious.

In Indiana, officials were surprised by the storms, said Alden Taylor, a spokesman for the State Emergency Management Agency.

“It was warm, but those are what are called popcorn storms that will suddenly appear. It’s very difficult to predict them,” Mr. Taylor said.

Authorities said three to six people suffered minor injuries in Jamestown, Ind., northwest of Indianapolis. The storm reportedly blew as many as four tractor-trailers rigs off highways.

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