Remembering the Pekin and East Peoria-Washington tornadoes 10 years later

Published: Nov. 17, 2023 at 10:47 AM CST|Updated: Nov. 17, 2023 at 11:05 AM CST
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(25News Now) - Many who were impacted by the tornado in Pekin, East Peoria or Washington 10 years ago use November 17th as a pivot point.

When telling stories or sharing memories they often say “Was that before or after the tornado?”

“It was very humid that morning, said meteorologist Matt Barnes. “So you knew that something was not right for that time of year.”

“I knew that the potential was there that this could be a very dangerous situation.”

Barnes, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Lincoln, was one of two radar operators on November 17.

His job was to monitor radar for any sign of severe weather and issue the appropriate warnings.

“I knew the environment was very primed for tornadic development,” he said. “So I knew ahead of time that I was going to be very quick and liberal with the warnings.”

“Essentially, if I saw something that started to rotate, I was gonna go for it.”

The first tornado warning was issued at 10:52 a.m. for Pekin.

That EF-2 tornado developed in Peoria County, crossed the river into Pekin and was on the ground for around two minutes.

Close to 200 homes and businesses were damaged - 40 were destroyed.

Vicki and John Ghidina of Pekin were two of many impacted that day. John and his son were home when the tornado hit - being awoken by the emergency alert.

“When my phone went off, and like, glanced at it, and it said there was a tornado warning from the National Weather Service, we came out in the living room and looked out the window and saw the sun was out,” he said. “We walked into the front yard and I said ‘Do we need to go to the basement’ and he yelled ‘yes’ and we came running back inside the house.’”

“And we walked through the house and just got to the bottom of the basement steps. I could hear glass breaking and wind upstairs in the house. But just within a few seconds, it stopped.”

A few seconds was all the time it took.

“I walked around the corner through the dining room into the living room and the picture window was shattered and there was debris all over in the living room,” he said. “The plaster ceiling in the dining room was hanging down about three feet.”

The immediate reaction was shock when they walked outside.

“It looked like a bomb had gone off in the neighborhood,” he said. “There was debris. There was at least one truck that was overturned in our side yard.”

Vicki was at church in Peoria that day. After navigating through closed streets filled with debris and downed wires, she made it home.

“I just couldn’t believe it,” she said. “It was like cotton candy in the trees and you know, there wasn’t really crying. It was just more of a you just don’t know what to do.”

Unfortunately, severe weather wasn’t done that day. The next tornado touched down at 10:59 a.m. in East Peoria, close to home here at the WEEK studios on Springfield Road.

Tracking the storms that day was Chief Meteorologist Chuck Collins along with our own Sandy Gallant.

“After being so dark when the tornado went through, the sun was out,” Collins said. “We saw limbs, siding, the roof of a nearby business ripped off. And then we were saying ‘oh my gosh, this was the real thing.’”

The East Peoria tornado was rated an EF-2 that strengthened to an EF-4 as it raced towards Washington.

Roughly 40 homes and businesses were destroyed and 120 were heavily damaged.

“As it crossed 74, 474, Pinecrest - when it got to Farmdale Park, it intensified,” Collins said. “And then we knew it was going into Washington. So we didn’t even know where the tornado was when we came out of hiding, but then we did a couple of minutes later and then we had to resume our coverage because upstream people were in danger.”

It’s an event that sticks out to him and ranks as the worst he’s ever experienced.

“First responders I’ve talked to, the mayor, anybody, you can’t help but not be affected by it, no matter what your job is, you know, we’re supposed to remain calm,” Collins said. “And we were, we were calm on the air and detached but you can’t be detached in that situation. Because, I mean, I’ve never seen anything like that in my life.

“And I know what tornadoes do,” he said. “But I still couldn’t believe it when I saw it.”

The National Weather Service emergency alerts saved many lives that day. The same can be said for our own on-air coverage.

“I’ve got a lot of people that say ‘we took cover because you took cover,’” he said. “And I think people trust our weather team even 10 years later, to depend on us. And when we say go to your safe place, they do that.”

As for Vicki and John, they’ll always pay attention to the forecast.

“Absolutely, always keep an eye on the weather. I think we were like everyone else that if there was a tornado that hit, it wasn’t going to hit our house.”

A year and a half after the tornado struck, their home was rebuilt - along with a storm shelter.

“The damage that was done to our house and neighborhood - that’s something I’ll never forget,” Ghidina said.