CHICAGO - Intense thunderstorms and tornadoes swept across the Midwest today, causing extensive damage in several central Illinois communities, killing at least two people and even prompting officials at Chicago's Soldier Field to evacuate the stands and delay the Bears game.
Mark Styninger, the coroner of Washington County in southern Illinois, said an elderly man and his sister were killed around noon when a tornado hit their home in the rural community of New Minden.
In central Illinois, the town of Washington appeared particularly hard-hit, with one resident saying his neighborhood was wiped out in a matter of seconds by a tornado.
"I stepped outside and I heard it coming. My daughter was already in the basement, so I ran downstairs and grabbed her, crouched in the laundry room and all of a sudden I could see daylight up the stairway and my house was gone," Michael Perdun said this afternoon in an interview with The Associated Press on his cellphone. "The whole neighborhood's gone, (and) the wall of my fireplace is all that is left of my house."
By mid-afternoon it remained unclear how many people were hurt. In a news release, the Illinois National Guard said it had dispatched 10 firefighters and three vehicles to Washington to assist with "immediate search and recovery operations in the tornado damaged area."
And Steve Brewer, chief operating officer at Methodist Medical Center of Illinois in Peoria, said that four or five people had come to the hospital seeking treatment, but he described their injuries as minor. He said another area hospital had received about 15 patients, but did not know the severity of their injuries.
Brewer said doctors and other medical professionals were setting up a temporary emergency care center to treat the injured before transporting them to area hospitals.
"I went over there immediately after the tornado, walking through the neighborhoods, and I couldn't even tell what street I was on," Alderman Tyler Gee told WLS-TV. "Just completely flattened - some of the neighborhoods here in town, hundreds of homes."
About 90 minutes after the tornado destroyed homes in Washington, the storm darkened downtown Chicago. As the rain and high winds slammed into the area, officials at Soldier Field evacuated the stands and ordered the Bears and Baltimore Ravens off the field. Fans were allowed back to their seats shortly after 2 p.m., and the game resumed after about a two-hour delay.
Earlier, the Office of Emergency Management and Communications issued a warning to fans, urging them "to take extra precautions and ... appropriate measures to ensure their personal safety." NFL games in Cincinnati and Pittsburgh also could be affected by the rough weather.
Just how many tornadoes hit was unclear this afternoon. According to the National Weather Services' website, a total of 59 tornadoes had struck, the bulk of them in Illinois. But meteorologist Matt Friedlein said the total might fall because emergency workers, tornado spotters and others often report the same tornado.