Friday, August 28, 2015
"Get out of here!!" -- The Plainfield Tornado
The sky to the west was green.
After 25 years, what I remember most about Aug. 28, 1990, was crossing the Wabash Avenue bridge, looking right, and seeing what looked like an ugly bruise made of clouds.
A tornado had just smashed into Plainfield, in Will County, and a city editor told me to get there now.
It had been a normal Tuesday. The weather service had predicted sunny skies. Nobody in Plainfield saw the funnel cloud coming — an F5, the most powerful ever to hit the Chicago area. A Joliet radio station was just broadcasting the first warning early that morning when the wind took down its broadcasting tower. There was no Internet.
But there was common sense. Coach Wayne DeSutter had 107 football players on the field at Plainfield High School, doing their workout. He saw lightening and decided practice was over. Had he waited five minutes, many of those players would have died. But he hurried them off the field and got them inside the smaller of the school's two gyms — in the larger, the girl's volleyball team was about to have their home opener.
There, the girl's coach, Cathy Cartright, started to go into the hallway, but had a strange feeling. A premonition, if you will. She turned back.
"I sensed the room didn't feel right," she later said, "it was like something was tapping me on the shoulder, telling me to get the kids out."
She wheeled around, shouting, "Get out of here! Now! Move it!"
The girls rushed into an interior hallways, joined by the football players. They all knelt down and huddled against the wall. They could feel the building tremble as the tornado bore down on them. Some students began crying, but some football players had the presence of mind to put their helmets back on. The last sounds they heard were the school's automatic tornado siren going off. Then their ears popped as the tornado came skipping and screaming across the field that the team had just been practicing on and blew the school apart.
The hallways with the students sheltered in it was one of the few parts left intact.
When the tornado passed, and the students gingerly stood up and ventured outside, at first they couldn't grasp what they were seeing. Through the doorway to the large gym, light.
''We didn't know where we were,'' said player Ben Speicker. ''There were no trees, no houses, no landmarks.''
Twenty-nine people died; three at the high school, including Stephen Hunt, a science teacher, killed when the wind threw a semi-trailer truck into his classroom. The tornado cut a 16 mile path of destruction. About 350 people were injured, and more than a thousand homes destroyed.
Some wondered if Plainfield would recover, but it obviously has. When the tornado hit, it had a population of 4,500. Now it's almost 10 times as big, with some 42,000 residents.
You always hear of the power of tornados, but when I got to the school, there were things I still can't quite believe, and I saw them with my own eyes. A starter jacket, somehow sucked through a crack in a wooden beam. Cars crumpled into balls, a Dumpster in a tree, a telephone pole that had not snapped, but been pushed, through the ground, standing up, leaving a trough.
I had one of those big, clunky Star Tac portable phones, and calling back updates its weak battery died — just as I looked down and said, "I better move, I'm standing on a power line." That gave the City Desk a scare, but the electricity had already been cut, fortunately. AT&T set up mobile phone booths, and I used one of those to call back. The paper told me to not leave Plainfield. It had been hard enough to get in — heading into Plainfield, a state trooper had tried to stop me at the roadblock, threatening to arrest me if I didn't turn around. I flopped my hands out of the car window, crossed at the wrist, and said, "Arrest me then." That seemed a better option than going back to the Sun-Times and telling the city editor I couldn't get into the town. He waved me through.
So I spent the night on a green army cot the Red Cross had set up in the kindergarten room of the elementary school. The next morning the press gathered at the Crest Hill Lakes Apartments, one of those cheap concrete four plus ones where many of the storms victims died when the structure pancaked. Waiting for a briefing, at precisely 7:30 a.m., I heard a heartbreaking noise. A beeping from the adjacent cornfield, where debris had been swept by the wind. A battery alarm clock doing its dim appliance duty, cheerily announcing the start of a regular work day that was not to be, for a owner who was now perhaps dead, buried somewhere in the rubble.