HARRISBURG — Six people were killed and the death toll could still rise from a tornado that tore a path of destruction through Harrisburg shortly before 5 a.m. today.

The Saline County Sheriff’s Department put early estimates at more than 100 people injured and 250 to 300 homes destroyed. Aerial views showed what looked like the work of a bombing. Emergency workers from across Southern Illinois were sent to help the battered city of about 9,100.

Many power lines are down and some gas lines leaking. Telephone services are knocked out for many and cellular telephone traffic at times is overloaded. Utility crews are on-scene and working. Several streets are blocked to all vehicle and pedestrian traffic and residents are advised to treat all power lines as being live.

Anyone not involved in the emergency response is asked to stay away from Harrisburg until further notice.

A shelter has been opened at First Baptist Church in Harrisburg at 204 N. Main Street.

The Harrisburg Medical Center sustained damage in the storm, but remained open and was treating some of the injured, according to Vince Ashley, CEO of the 78-bed hospital. No one was injured at the medical center, he said.

Northeast of Harrisburg, Cheryl Lovellette, a dispatcher with the Gallatin County Sheriff’s Department, said no fatalities were reported in Ridgway, but St. Joseph Church was destroyed and the village’s American Legion severely damaged in the storm. Minor injuries were reported.

Lovellette said Ridgway’s mayor issued a disaster declaration, and volunteers with debris removal equipment and chainsaws still are needed to assist in relief efforts. There is no power in the town of about 900, although a massive police, fire and emergency medical response is engaged.

South of Harrisburg, The Massac County Sheriff’s Department reported damage to trees and buildings near Metropolis. Trees blocked some roadways but most have since been removed. No fatalities or injuries were reported.

Southwest of Harrisburg, the Pulaski County sheriff’s department confirmed some storm damage in Mounds and Mound City. County EMS crews were dispatched to assist in relief efforts in Harrisburg.

Seeing it hit

The tornado was spotted as a wall cloud by area storm spotters at 4:52 a.m. It touched down at 4:56 a.m. in a southwest part of town known as Dorisville. It traveled northeast through the business district into an area called Gaskins City.

Storm spotters Ryan Buckingham and Richard Good of the Franklin County Emergency Management Agency said they were east of Marion in Williamson County when they saw the wall cloud form. They watched the tornado touch down and follow along the path of Illinois 13.

The tornado caused major damage at Southeastern Illinois College. No injuries were reported at SIC. President Jonah Rice said classes have been canceled the remainder of the week. Spring break begins March 5 with classes resuming March 12.

Rice said the tornado caused minor damage to most campus buildings. The greenhouse was destroyed. The softball and baseball fields got major damage, he said.

“We were really fortunate. We were in the path. The tornado almost seemed to go over and touch down in Ridgway,” Rice said.

Help arriving

Gov. Pat Quinn is expected to arrive about 2 p.m., and he has he has directed the Illinois Emergency Management Agency to activate the State Emergency Operations Center (SEOC) in Springfield.

State Sen. Gary Forby, D-Benton, said, “I’ve talked to the governor’s office, the Department of Transportation, the Illinois Emergency Management Agency, Ameren, and everyone else I could think of. They’re all on their way to Southern Illinois to help.”

West of Harrisburg, the deputy coordinator of the Jackson County Emergency Management Agency, Shawn Priddy, said Carbondale and Murphysboro technical rescue firemen were dispatched to Harrisburg.

Carbondale Deputy Police Chief Jeff Grubbs said the department sent two police officers to Harrisburg through the Illinois Emergency Alarm System aid agreement.

Carbondale Fire Chief John Michalesko said departments within Mutual Aid Box Alarm System Division 45, which covers Southern Illinois, were rallying men and equipment to the hardest-hit areas. Michalesko said Carbondale’s department sent a technical rescue team and is delivering a mobile generator light tower to Harrisburg.

“Our hearts go out to their families and the many others who were injured or suffered a devastating loss,” Quinn said in a written statement. “The state of Illinois is committed to doing everything possible to help these communities respond and recover from this disaster.”

Said U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk, “We are working closely with the members of the Illinois delegation, will be following all future developments, and stand ready to do anything we can to assist in this difficult time.”

More trouble?

Severe weather may be on the way Friday, according to weather forecasters, and storm or tornado watches and warnings may be issued.

A watch means storms or tornados are possible in your area. Stay alert for weather information and be prepared to take shelter in a safe place. Seek shelter elsewhere if you live in a mobile home.

The Illinois Emergency Management Agency says to report rotating funnel clouds to local emergency management agencies, law enforcement officials or 9-1-1.

Warnings mean a tornado or severe storm has been sighted or indicated on weather radar. These storms may include powerful wind and damaging hail. Take shelter immediately and turn on a battery operated radio, television or weather radio for updated information.

— Most of The Southern Illinoisan newsroom staff remains in the field and contributed to this report.

 

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