Tornado victims fight for normalcy as the holidays approach

By Claire Hettinger

The morning weather in Washington, Ill., was fine, except Zach Schildt thought it looked like it was going to rain.

The 21-year-old left his home on Sunday, Nov. 17 and drove to work at 7:45 a.m., and in his absence, a 170 mph wind ravaged his hometown and tore his home into pieces a little more than a week before the holiday season began.

For any of Washington’s residents who lived in one of the 1,000 homes destroyed or damaged in their town, it is hard to imagine what the holiday season may bring now that they no longer have a place to hang their stockings.

However, the season is famous for its miracles, and the stories from Washington are no exception.

Nancy McMullen, another Washington resident, learned about the tornado warning when she was shopping at the local Dollar General. At first, she stayed put, planning to wait out the storm.  

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In another part of town, Schildt was working at Todd’s Service Center, the local auto service business, which has a police scanner. He heard the radio buzz about a tornado touching down in a field somewhere in Washington. He grabbed his phone and texted his friends to tell them about the approaching funnel.

As McMullen idly waited, she changed her mind. Desensitized by previous false alarms, she didn’t expect that outside, conditions were perfect for a tornado to form at any moment.

She wanted to make it home before the hail started.

Considering the looming heavy rain, she avoided the crowded main roads and instead chose to drive through the subdivision behind the store.

As she traveled homeward, she saw the clouds forming into a tornado. She watched it touch down, growing larger and larger until it was a massive funnel.  

“All I could see in my mirror was that tornado,” McMullen said.

About a minute after the police report, Schildt looked outside to see a “giant, huge, swirling, crazy looking — I can’t even describe it” storm cloud approaching. He said it sounded like a lawnmower-chainsaw-huge-train approaching in the distance.

That’s when Schildt decided he had to leave. There was no place for him to take cover at the garage.

He figured since he was dead anyway if the tornado was coming at him, he would try and find someplace safer to hide.

Anxiety raced through McMullen’s veins as she raced the tornado home. She noticed the funnel was heading in her direction, so she double-checked the intersection ahead of her and ran the red light.

Schildt ran out into the street in panic and tried to get one of the passing cars to give him a lift.

Nobody stopped.

In the distance, he saw the flashing lights of a police vehicle, so he ran to it and the officer unlocked the doors and let him in.

McMullen made it into her driveway and, still thinking the tornado was heading toward her, rushed to the front door, and her husband let her inside.  

The subdivision that Nancy had driven through mere minutes before it was destroyed.

“My husband and I decided I missed (the tornado) by a minute and a half,” she said. “Everything around where I was driving in the neighborhood is just total mass destruction. There are no homes — it was in the direct path of the tornado.”

Schildt’s home, the only one he’s ever lived in, is in a similarly destroyed neighborhood — with his father inside at the time of the storm.

The policeman dropped Schildt off at Hardee’s, where he then immediately tried to contact his family. His calls would not go through, and he spent the next 10 minutes deciding what to do.

As soon as he remembered his mother was right across the street at the church, he ran to make sure she was okay.

Schildt’s panicking mother explained that she had been talking to his father just before the phone went dead. His last words were, “It’s coming toward the house.”

In an attempt to see if his dad was OK, Schildt and his mother drove toward their neighborhood in a friend’s car, but had to turn back because downed power lines made it too dangerous to drive through the residential area.

Back at the church, they waited for some word from him. His dad showed up 40 minutes later in their neighbor’s car.

He informed them that everything was gone, but Schildt didn’t realize what that meant.

“I thought, ‘Oh well, our house is gone, we can rebuild it,’ but our entire subdivision — everything was just gone,” he said.

Later when he went to his home to see if anything could be salvaged, the true state of things was inconceivable.   

“It looked like a war zone,” he said, “I’ve lived there all my life, and I just couldn’t believe my eyes seeing all of the destruction.”

Not much could be saved from his family home other than a few items of clothing, some of his homework, two calculators and textbooks from his last semester classes at Illinois Central College. He did save a pair of shoes, filled with insulation and debris, but he still has to clean them out.

Schildt was overjoyed when he realized two rather furry possessions weathered the storm as well.

One under the couch in the basement and one in a closet upstairs, Rusty and Sugar survived the storm.

“Which was awesome,” he said. “I was so worried about my cats.”

The tornado hit close to home for many who live on the University’s campus.

Jessica Weston wanted to go home and help as soon as she heard the news but traffic into the town was regulated, and not many people were being allowed in. Unfazed, she then decided to do something for Washington from Champaign.

She, with the help of three other coordinators and the entire Illini community, would fill a truck.

Seniors Weston, LAS; Mandy McGuire, ACES; Dani Frye, AHS; and Allison Canty, LAS, are all from Washington and created the “Fill the Truck” campaign to provide relief to their friends and neighbors whose lives were changed by the tornado.

They would gather the most necessary and immediate supplies for the victims of the tornado, and they would take them home on Friday when they left for Thanksgiving break.

Monday morning, there was an empty trailer. Monday afternoon, there were four boxes on Weston’s doorstep. Friday afternoon, there was a trailer so full not even another box could fit.

Illini Fighting Hunger, Orange Krush, fraternities, sororities, other registered student organizations and citizens donated water, food, cleaning supplies, clothing, pillows, blankets and baby items, among other items, to accomplish their goal and help their fellow townspeople in need.

Weston called Washington Mayor Gary Manier as the trailer that took two hours to load rolled into town. He directed them to the Sunnyland Plaza donation drop off, and in a matter of 20 minutes, the ready and willing volunteers emptied the trailer.

In addition to the truck, more than $2,000 were donated to the Washington Secret Santa, a group focused on providing children with presents and restoring some normalcy to their holiday season.

The Interfraternity Council also donated $4,000 to Washington Helps Its People, the local food pantry.

Victims and volunteers have used Facebook as a main form of communication. In the early aftermath of the tornado, a page called “Washington, IL Tornado Recovery” served as a source of available resources as well as a place for people to ask questions about encountered problems. This page has received more than 178,000 “likes” as of press time and thousands of posts from people across the nation.

Schildt and his family have received much support from friends and strangers in the aftermath of the disaster. They have been staying at the Hampton Inn in East Peoria, Ill., which has given discounted rates to tornado victims. They have also received meals and help with insurance questions, to name a few things.

Schildt went to a Red Cross shelter after the tornado. He excitedly spoke about the comfort dogs that he played with that first night. He thought it was hilarious that they brought in the dogs and found it especially funny that they have their own Facebook page.

He claims that the shoes he received from the volunteers of the San Antonio Shoe Company are “the most comfortable shoes ever.”

Volunteers made sure people made homeless by the tornado had somewhere to gather for Thanksgiving. Schools and churches were turned into make-shift cafeterias for those who had nowhere else to go, like Schildt and his family.

Schildt spent his Thanksgiving eating at a local school while his parents ate at a local church. He just kept thinking if they had a home they would be together. It was awful for him to be separated from his family and to have been reduced to eating at a church and a school, rather than sitting at his dining room table eating a nice Thanksgiving meal of turkey. They should be talking to each other, having a nice family conversation.

Above all, he just kept thinking that they should be together.

The citizens of Washington continue to plan their next move. As time passes, people are slowly but surely fitting the pieces of their lives back together.

Schildt and his family will move into a rental home, trying to return their lives to normal.

Some people did not have homeowners’ insurance, and Schildt said he feels much worse for them than for himself because they literally lost everything.

Though it’s approaching fast, Schildt said Christmas is the last thing on people’s minds. Affected Washington residents are just trying to figure out what they are going to do and where they are going to live.

Nancy said most people she knows are trying to pick up where they left off with what little they have and go from there. She knows people who are trying to get Christmas trees to add some normalcy for their children. 

Some victims, however, did not even have shoes let alone Christmas ornaments and decorations.

The Schildt family Christmas decorations were in the basement of their house, so some were able to be saved. Schildt’s father was able to salvage some of the decorations Schildt had made while in preschool — decorations that were important to his parents.

Despite the hardships, Schildt said morale in Washington remains high. He said the help he has received has been incredible, and he is definitely going to write the volunteers a thank you note.

To McMullen, everything has been overwhelming. She said the outpouring of help and volunteerism from the community as well as the nation makes her think about how fortunate everybody is to be in Washington.

She doesn’t think anybody could say anything negative about the help that has been received.

“The whole community is very strong, and we are doing the best we can,” Schildt said. “Almost anyone you talk to is going to have a positive outlook on this, and they are just going to get through it, and they are glad to be alive.”

Soon, the air will get colder and the snow will fall. Schildt said if the winter is mild, his family may be able to have their home rebuilt by this time next year, but that seems to be the earliest estimate.

For now, the weather is fine — but there is nothing left to block the wind

Claire can be reached at [email protected].