UTICA, Ill. – Searchers with shovels and buckets pulled eight bodies Wednesday from the rubble of a tavern where residents had gathered to seek shelter from a twister that flattened the century-old building.
Mayor Fred Esmond said several people from a nearby trailer park had congregated in the basement of the Milestone Tap on a night when dozens of twisters tore through the Midwest. Nine people were removed alive from the ruins of the country-western-themed watering hole.
"They heard it on the radio. Some of them went to the tavern for safety, and it just so happened ...," Esmond said, his voice trailing off.
Coroner Jody Bernard said the dead, who were found in various locations of the bar, ranged in age from 18 to 81. The two-story building's crumbling sandstone foundation slowed rescuers' efforts as they gingerly dug through the sandy rubble, using microphones to listen for signs of life.
Richard Little recalled rushing to the bar's basement as tornado sirens wailed outside. Moments later, he was sitting next to a freezer with fallen wood beams and an elderly man crouched next to him.
"You could hear kids screaming and adults screaming to let us know where they were buried," said Little, a 37-year-old truck driver who was hospitalized with a sore shoulder, ribs and back.
Onlookers photographed and videotaped the tavern rubble Wednesday evening. All that remained standing was the foundation and a rear part of the building. A pool table also stood amid the wreckage.
The twister cut a wide swath of destruction in this small town 90 miles southwest of Chicago (search), 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.
"It was like my brain wasn't comprehending what my eyes were seeing," said John Devore, who rushed his family into the basement and looked outside about 15 seconds later. "I said, 'Well, it looks like the car's OK,' and then a split-second later, 'Wait a minute. I'm not supposed to be able to see my car. Where the hell's my garage?'"
The tornado (search) blew roofs off many buildings in Utica (search), including the grade school. A nearby chain-link fence was covered in insulation blown from homes. A birthday card signed "Love, Brian" rested against the fence.
A metal silo at the grain elevator was toppled, and a chunk of it was wrapped around a stop sign. A wall of bricks from a downtown bar fell onto a car parked next to the building.
On houses that officials had checked for injuries, marks of "OK" were spray-painted in orange and pink.
Authorities said they did not believe anyone else was missing.
Gov. Rod Blagojevich (search) visited Utica and other communities and declared four counties disaster areas. Federal Emergency Management Agency (search) officials planned to visit Thursday to see if they qualify for disaster relief.
The tornado that devastated Utica was one of dozens that smashed through the Midwest. Indiana also was hard hit, and Iowa, Nebraska and Oklahoma reported twisters as well. A lightning storm hit Arkansas on Wednesday, striking a high school junior who died on his way to school.
Authorities said three to six people suffered minor injuries in Jamestown, Ind., northwest of Indianapolis. Four tractor-trailers were reported blown off highways.
More than 30 teenagers were attending a party at a skating arena in Kokomo, Ind., when a tornado tore off the 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.
A storm also collapsed a drugstore roof and destroyed at least one home in Joliet, outside Chicago, and damaged about 60 homes and a bank in Granville, near Utica, officials said.
Sheriff's Deputy Jeff Whalen, who saw the Utica tornado out of his kitchen window, said the twister "was about the size of four houses."
"It's one of those things you see once in a lifetime," he said.
The dead were identified as Larry Ventrice, 49; Wayne Ball, 63; Marian Ventrice, 50; Beverly "Bev" Wood, 67; Helen Menke, 81; Carol Shultheis, 40; Mike Miller, 18; and Jay Vezain, 47.