Remembering the Plainfield tornado 25 years later

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CHICAGO (FOX 32 News) - Not only was the Plainfield tornado of 1990 the only EF-5 rated tornado in Chicago area history, it is also the only EF-5 tornado to strike in the month of August nationwide.

The 16 mile path of death and destruction brought Plainfield to its knees, but survivors want everyone to know they are stronger than ever.

Also, with  advances in weather technology, they expect more lives to be saved in the future.

There’s only one known video of the Plainfield tornado as it developed, and it caused mass destruction in less than 3 minutes. Four hundred and seventy homes and business were destroyed, and another 1000 homes were damaged. Twenty nine lives were also lost.

The community had no warning and no sirens, just an eerie sky

"The sky was such a greyish green color," said survivor Barb Perinon.

"….the sky just turns green, like a green I've never seen before," said survivor Patrick McCraney.

"The sky was just black as black could be coming towards us," said survivor Robert Zimmerman.

Perignon recalls how she and her husband raced to their son, just as the tornado leveled his high school.

Bricks fell around them as they pulled out survivors and recovered two of the dead. However, there was no sign of their son.

"We didn't know where he was…I was frantic. You know when the building collapses you hope it's not yours and hope nobody gets hurt and when I couldn't find him…it was just unnerving and very frightening,” Perignon said.

Later that night, word came her son was alive, but injured and taken to a hospital. They finally saw him the next day.

As the tornado ripped through town, Zimmerman watched the building around him fall apart.

"Things started banging and booming and the lights went out and we saw stuff flying under the ceiling.....I screamed out hit the floor...I had nothing to grab onto. Pretty soon I felt like I was doing levitation because I went up 3 or 4 feet and I had nothing to grab onto and it was over and I dropped," Zimmerman said.

He survived, but his neighborhood did not.

What was left of his life was featured on the front page of the New York Times.

What still haunts him most, is the sound.

"Go out to O'Hare, stick your head in the end of a jet engine and listen to that scream. It's the best way I can describe it. It was just an Earth shattering scream," Zimmerman said.

For 10-year-old McCraney, life changed in an instant.

"It was the day before I was supposed to go to 5th grade. We were celebrating the end of summer in a pool behind our house and it was 3:15 or so," McCraney said.

“I remember my mom yelling to my sister and I in the pool, get inside and then the hail starts to drop," he added. "It's just wreckage everywhere and I remember thinking my God, the towns destroyed, it's all gone."

McCraney’s home was spared, but his friends were not so lucky.   

"I had a very good friend of mine, he was in a car and was thrown and had to crawl through the back window of the car and has glass scars in his back to this day,” MCCraney said.

After the tornado, a Doppler Radar was installed at the National Weather Service and todays advanced technology could have saved lives back in 1990.

"Know that we may only have seconds to act. The state of the art tornado warnings today is 13 minutes and that's far better than it was in 1990 before we had the Doppler radar technology,” said Edward Fenlon, Chief Meteorologist of the NWS.

"The fact of the matter, Chicago is vulnerable to these powerful tornadoes. The tall buildings downtown are not going to protect us, the lake is not going to protect us,” he added.

That’s something survivors of the Plainfield tornado already know.

"We react a little differently. We pay attention. When I hear that siren, I'm heading for the basement," Zimmerman said.

"I don’t mess around, it's straight to the basement, kids are coming to the basement," McCraney said.

Experts say we all need more than one way to get those all-important warnings.

You at home have plenty of choices, including smartphone alerts, weather apps, twitter, NOAA weather alert, radios, and of course on your television sets.