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How do you cover a tornado?

  • The remains of the Sullivan house in Vergennes, which the EF-4 tornado lifted off its foundation and dropped on the nearby road.

    The remains of the Sullivan house in Vergennes, which the EF-4 tornado lifted off its foundation and dropped on the nearby road.
    Geoff Ritter/Local Southern News

 
updated: 3/8/2017 8:36 PM

SOUTHERN ILLINOIS - At 9 p.m. Tuesday, reporter Holly Kee was in her car, heading from Johnston City to Benton. A tornado, which had been heading for Du Quoin and then Christopher, had somehow missed both, but now reportedly had a direct bead on Benton.

Meanwhile, Marion/Harrisburg/Eldorado managing editor John Homan and reporter Shea Lazansky were flying west from Johnston City. They had heard about tornado damage in Jackson County and were trying to get there, ever aware there were probably downed live wires in their path.

How do you cover a dangerous tornado as it is dodging and weaving its way across southern Illinois -- first here, now there -- in the dark, and less than an hour before deadline? I am so proud of the effort that our staff made that night, and I'm recounting the story so you can share my appreciation.

We didn't know it at the time, but there were two tornadoes that night -- one an EF-4 that traveled nearly 50 miles from near Perryville, Missouri to just southwest of Christopher -- and hit Vergennes, Elkville and Mulkeytown along the way. A second twister, an EF-3, developed just southwest of Crossville, in White County, and went 44 miles to near Oakland City, Indiana. This one killed a Crossville man.

In a newsroom, this is a case of all hands on deck, but many, like Kee, didn't wait for a call. Getting to Benton, Kee was relieved there was no damage. She drove carefully around the darkened streets, seeing obvious evidence a storm had passed through, but no smashed buildings or overturned cars.

Meanwhile, page designers Gatha Moore and Paul Lilly were running back to the offices in Harrisburg and Du Quoin, ready to tear up our Wednesday front pages to remake them.

Saline County reporter Travis DeNeal was checking on damage there, just as Benton Evening News and Du Quoin Evening Call managing editor Geoff Ritter was checking on Du Quoin.

Devan Vaughn, group director of advertising, snapped a photo of hail the size of a golf ball that fell in Perry County.

Out in Randolph County, Herald Tribune managing editor Pete Spitler was aware of the disaster that happened right across the river in Perryville and was combing Chester and the county, in frequent contact with emergency responders.

In her office, Group Editor Renee Trappe was live-streaming WSIL-TV and pulling the story together for the websites. Every time we got more information from a reporter in the field, a new version of the story was posted.

Every reporter was calling people they knew -- police, fire and emergency preparedness -- to discover where the worst hit areas were. All these emergency responders were on the job, even though some were facing losses of their own.

Homan and Lazansky didn't make it to Vergennes. An officer was blocking Vergennes Road because of downed power lines. He helpfully pointed his headlights toward the damage as Lazansky snapped photos. They went north on Route 51 toward Du Quoin from Elkville, but got stopped by police and downed lines again. There was nowhere to go but back.

Meanwhile, by chance, Kee had met up with an ambulance driver at Huck's, who told her how to get to the destroyed house on Yellow Banks Road.

But she too, was halted by a roadblock of law enforcement. Ryan Buckingham, director of Franklin County Emergency Management, invited her into his vehicle for a rundown. He told her she could pass the barrier if she wanted but getting a photo of a house blown to bits would be difficult in the pitch dark.

Buckingham also told her the second wave of storms was coming up quickly. Kee headed east. In West Frankfort, the tornado sirens started shrieking. Once over the Williamson County line, the wind increased sharply and it began to rain so hard she could barely see the road. A wave of water washed over the hood of her car and a wind gust blew her into the opposite lane and onto the shoulder.

Dimly ahead, Kee saw lights. It was The Ranch, the local bar. She pulled in and stepped out of her Subaru Outback -- into water that nearly reached her knees. She sloshed into the bar where the management was trying to deal with water pouring through the doors and flooding the interior, but still managed to find towels for her.

By the next morning, the scope of the damage came into focus. Here, Ritter mainly took over, visiting families who lost their homes but thankfully, not their lives. Their stories were powerful, and Ritter acquitted them well.

Anyone who was in southern Illinois Tuesday night has a story. We'd like to hear yours. Email us at comments@localsouthernnews.com or leave a message at (618) 252-6914 if you've got a story to tell, too.