An Ohio community whose high school was destroyed the day before graduation by a tornado that killed seven people, including the valedictorian’s father, rescheduled the ceremony as residents sifted through houses in many cases reduced to rubble.
The tornado was part of a line of storms that ripped through the Midwest on June 5 and 6, destroying dozens of homes and an emergency services building in northwest Ohio.
Storms collapsed a movie-theater roof in Illinois and ripped siding off a building at a Michigan nuclear plant, forcing a shutdown. But the worst destruction was reserved for a strip up to 300 yard wide and 10 miles long southeast of Toledo left littered on June 6 with wrecked vehicles, splintered wood and family possessions.
Doug Wensink, 17, who had planned to graduate on June 6, said the valedictorian lived in a home on a street blocked by fallen tree limbs.
Neighbors dug through a pile of rubble where the house once stood. There was nothing left but the foundation, which was filled with water and debris. A pool table floated in the middle.
Friends cried as they picked the family’s belongings out of the mud and the mangled trees. One girl emerged from the muddy water carrying a teddy bear and a small jewelry box.
Scott Conley said he helped rescue the mother and her three children, who had survived by hiding in the basement. He had arrived at his parents’ house across the street about 20 minutes before the storm hit. He said his family laid in the stairwell because they didn’t have time to get to the basement.
Conley said he saw the body of the children’s father in the rubble after hours of searching. He said the man apparently ran upstairs to get a flashlight and couldn’t make it back to safety.
“You try and tell them, you know, that you’re gonna find their dad,” Conley said, breaking down at the memory of the search. “But we just couldn’t.”
The tornado ripped the roof and back wall off Lake High School’s gymnasium late on June 5, hours before the graduation ceremony was supposed to begin there. The ceremony was rescheduled for June 8 at a Toledo community college.
The tornado that hit Wood and Ottawa counties had estimated winds of up to 165 mph and was by far the most severe of four confirmed tornadoes to strike northern Ohio on Saturday, Will Kubina, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Cleveland, said June 7.
At least 50 homes were destroyed and another 50 severely damaged, as well as six commercial buildings. The storm fell over an area of farm fields and light industry, narrowly missing the heavily populated suburbs on the southern edge of Toledo.
“It’s a war zone,” Lake Township Police Chief Mark Hummer said.
Hummer said all residents were accounted for after house-to-house searches.
The tornado turned a township police and emergency medical services building into a mishmash of 2-by-4 framing and pink insulation. At least six police vehicles–half the township’s fleet–were destroyed, and one car was tossed into the spot where the building once stood.
Those killed included a person outside the police department and a motorist, Hummer said. He said a young child and two other victims were from Millbury, a bedroom community of roughly 1,200 about 10 miles southeast of Toledo. Hummer said two other people died at hospitals but he did not have details.
In southeastern Michigan, severe storms and high winds ripped siding off a building at the Fermi 2 nuclear plant, causing it to shut down automatically, said Dan Smith, the public information officer for Monroe County.
DTE Energy, which owns the nuclear plant on the shore of Lake Erie, is still investigating the extent of the damage, and there’s no estimate when the plant will go back into operation, spokesman Guy Cerullo said. He emphasized that the reactor itself was not damaged, just other “plant-related equipment.”
About 14,000 people were without power but it wasn’t clear whether that was directly related to the nuclear plant’s shutdown or because of damage to power lines in the area, said Gregory Williams, director of emergency management for Monroe County.
Eleven people with minor injuries were taken to hospitals from Dundee, Mich., where a tornado touched down with winds of about 130 mph. Tornadoes also were reported in Illinois. More than a dozen people were injured in Dwight, where about 40 mobile homes and 10 other homes were destroyed, Illinois Emergency Management Agency spokeswoman Patti Thompson said.
The roof of a movie theater collapsed in Elmwood, about 30 miles west of Peoria. State Trooper Dustin Pierce said 150 to 200 people who had been inside were evacuated to the basement and no one was hurt.
The storms left a trail of damaged homes in northern Indiana and a tornado sighting was reported, but no one was injured. In eastern Iowa, buildings were damaged and one person was hurt when a tornado touched down in Maquoketa.
A cold front colliding with warm unstable air produced the storms that struck the night of June 5, said meteorologist Marty Mullen of the National Weather Service, and that front was draped from New England south through the mid-Atlantic region on Sunday. The storm weakened as it headed east.
The day after the Toledo-area tornado hit, residents were searching fields looking for anything salvageable.
The storm destroyed Ronald Johns’ house and barn and flung his cast-iron bath tub into a wheat field, but his wife managed to find a wristwatch, still working, amid the scattered bits of their home near Millbury.
On June 5, Johns looked out the window and couldn’t even see the barn directly across the road. The chimney fell through the first floor as soon as the retired couple made it to the basement, pinning Johns with bricks until his wife, Jan, managed to free him.
Ronald Johns, 74, said they were lucky. “We didn’t get down there five seconds too fast,” he said.