"God had his hands on us."
Ernie Meadows hunkered down in his workshop off of Yellow Banks Road in Mulkeytown as the storm approached. When he emerged unhurt, the storm had torn the western wall from his home, as well as much of the roof.
Also destroyed were several other structures on his property, including a house to the east occupied by his son, daughter-in-law and 18-month-old grandson, who were uninjured but had to be dug out from the rubble. Christopher Fire Chief Gene Payne's volunteer team of firefighters, with an assist from Royalton and Coello, freed the family of three.
"I was delayed in getting to the scene because of some debris that was on the road," Payne said, "and by the time I got there, our people had already got the man, woman and child out of the home. And thankfully, none of the family members required any medical attention. I couldn't be prouder. I'm so glad we were able to help."
Payne, a 40-year volunteer who has been chief the last year or so, has seen more than his share of heartache in his time. He did not want to add to it Tuesday night.
"The walls to this pole barn-type structure had caved in," he said. "Fortunately, the family was not injured from the walls and was able to get to a part of the house where it could be rescued."
A series of dangerous storms roared across southern Illinois Tuesday night, cutting a swath that did the most damage in northern Jackson County, western Franklin County and White County, where a man's death is being attributed to the storm.
Searchers in White County found the man, Thomas McCord, 71, several yards from his residence just south of Crossville. Authorities believe he sought shelter from the storm in an out building, which was destroyed.
In Missouri, Perry County Clerk Jared Kutz confirmed one person was killed and eight to 10 homes near the town of Perryville were badly damaged when the storm hit around 8:30 p.m. Perryville is about 80 miles south of St. Louis. Several cars and trucks were blown off I-55.
Search and rescue crews were going door-to-door in Perryville, and were searching for anyone who may have been injured on the interstate.
Meadows has lived almost all of his 56 years in his family home in Mulkeytown and said his family has lived on the farm for about a century. He definitely plans to rebuild. He said Tuesday's tornado was not the first he has seen from his rural home, but it was certainly the closest.
"I've rode a bunch of them out," Meadows said. " I've watched them go north of us and south of us, but this one went right through the middle."
Meadows' wife, Ruth, was visiting church friends in New Orleans but immediately drove home after receiving news of the storm, arriving back in Mulkeytown around 10 a.m. Wednesday.
Ruth said she was thankful her family was OK, and everything else on the property is simply "stuff."
"We are very fortunate," she said. "God had his hands on us."
Ruth said the family has received several offers of places to stay. She added that State Rep. Dave Severin, R-Benton, visited them earlier in the morning.
Jackson County saw worst damage
Debbie Sullivan and her family were huddled down in the basement bathroom of their Vergennes home Tuesday night when the roar began. Instinctively, she covered the dog.
That's where she and several others were when, suddenly, the shower collapsed on top of them. Then, they became aware that the whole house above them was moving. The tornado lifted the house clean off the foundation and dropped it in the middle of Route 127.
On Wednesday afternoon, the Jackson County Emergency Management Agency reported that 46 residences had sustained significant damage, with 12 being total losses. A number of other structures also sustained serious damage, including the Powerade baseball complex in Elkville. Four Jackson County residents were treated for minor injuries resulting from flying debris.
According to Ameren Illinois, the most power outages in southern Illinois were concentrated in northern Jackson County west of Route 51 and in Massac, Alexander and Pulaski counties. About 150 people in Tamaroa were reported to be without power earlier Wednesday.
In Vergennes, the swath the storm cut through town was easily evident by the debris. Pieces of siding from the Sullivan house were wrapped around trees. What's left of their home had been dragged off the road.
Debbie Sullivan stood outside, looking at the hole that once was her house filled with debris. Her thoughts went back to the previous night.
"I don't know if it lasted forever or if it lasted a split second," she said.
Across the highway from the Sullivans, a small army of family and friends were at work Wednesday morning at the farm of Tama and Lester Weil, where nine buildings were destroyed. One of them was Lester's new "man cave," an out building he only recently finished.
The house and barn, built by Lester's great-grandfather, miraculously survived. The couple were in the house when it hit. Tama, hobbled by recent surgery, donned the bicycle helmet her daughter gave her after the surgery to protect her head in case she fell. Huddled with them was their labrador, Amos.
The Perry County Emergency Management Agency reported an observed tornado around 8:30 p.m., with the path of the storm headed straight for Du Quoin. The storm ultimately shifted its course, although the city was hit with high winds and golf ball-sized hail.
In aftermath, preparedness remains key
Ryan Buckingham, director of Emergency Management in Franklin County, said there were a total of three homes between Mulkeytown and Royalton, and also on Yellow Banks Road, that were "virtually destroyed."
Buckingham said the good news was that there were no fatalities or major injuries reported in Franklin County.
"Thank God, the tornado only touched the ground briefly and didn't stay on the ground," he said. "Because this one had the potential for a major disaster."
Buckingham said what made the tornadic event even scarier was that it was at night.
"When you can't see it, that always makes it more difficult for everyone," he said. "Plus, there were people who were already asleep. I'm just very thankful it wasn't worse."
Buckingham said Tuesday night's tornado is the perfect example of why it's important residents should own weather radios, especially when storms are brewing in the area.
"Preparedness is the key," he said.
On Wednesday, EMA workers were out and about in the county assessing the damage.
Buckingham said Perry County EMA provided mutual aid.
The National Weather Service reports that wind speed from Tuesday night's tornado exceeded 100 mph at times and stretched from just west of Perryville, Mo., to southern Indiana.
Staff writers Travis DeNeal, John Homan, Holly Kee and Shea Lazansky contributed to this story.
In the storm's aftermath, devastation and blessings remain
"God had his hands on us."