Washington leaders prepared for mass casualties after realizing the magnitude of damage from the massive tornado

Published: Nov. 17, 2023 at 11:34 AM CST
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WASHINGTON (25News Now) - It was 11:06 a.m. Sunday, November 17th, 2013. A massive EF-4 tornado with 190 mile per hour winds entered the southwest corner of the city.

One person died that day, and two others died later from their injuries. Dozens were injured and over 1,000 structures, mainly homes, were damaged or destroyed.

Like many residents, Mayor Gary Manier was in church and took shelter. When he emerged, he began learning the extent of damage from a police officer who said Georgetown Common apartments had been destroyed.

“‘Mayor, it’s bad, the officer said,’” Manier recalled. “I can’t believe they’ve lost everything there’”

But that wasn’t the only damage. The tornado cut a swath through the west side of town damaging or destroying everything in its path.

“And I looked at Georgetown and I looked toward Washington Estates where our first home was, where my wife grew up and everything was just gone.”

The damage was unthinkable. Houses gone, debris everywhere, natural gas spewing into the air and the uncertainty of injuries or death. In facct, Five Points, was being considered as a location for a morgue.

“We hadn’t done any search and rescue yet to that point in the early morning hours. Obviously the Red Cross determined if there’s people still trapped and accounting for everyone that early evening. But yes, we talked about body bags and everything else”.

Former Fire Chief Mike Vaughn, had to manuever his vehicle around the tornado while on his way to see the damage which he called terrifying.

“When I turned the corner and came up Hampton Road, this road right next to us here, I got half way up the street where it comes over a rise and there was nothing and it just, it took my breath away.”

After realizing the amount of damage, Vaughn started calling for outside help.

“There were over 100 different fire departments during the course of a two-week period and about a thousand different firefighters from as far away as Plainfield, Illinois to Springfield, Illinois to Bloomington, Illinois. All the small departments in between and the city of Peoria sent crews for about a week.”

Former Police Chief Don Volk was home and heard a train noise but he said it wasn’t that unusual since he lived near train tracks, but this time he knew something wasn’t right.

“I’m used to hearing trains but it didn’t stop. And I looked out the window and I saw the funnel cloud. I saw the rotation and I saw debris kicked up and I looked at my wife and I said we got to go, we’ve been hit”.

When he realized the extent of damage, Volk’s first action was to close the area so first reponders could do their jobs without distractions and to keep the area safe.

“I knew approximately where the tornado damage came through. I knew roughly how many entrances in that area we had and my first thought was I want to get this closed down”.

The tornado may have been massive but it pales in comparison to the foritude of the community. What an amazing recovery from massive destruction to a rebirth of the hardest hit area. All of this possible because Washington and central Illinois remain strong 10 years later.