Plainfield to mark 20th anniversary of tornado

August 26, 2010 (PLAINFIELD, Ill.)

Twenty-nine people were killed and more than 300 were injured along the tornado's 16-mile path.

For many the memories are still powerful. ABC 7's Ben Bradley has a look at Plainfield then and now.

They never saw it coming: Not the National Weather Service. Not first responders. And not the people of Plainfield.

"The next thing I know, all the windows in the truck exploded, and we were getting tossed every which way," said one victim from his hospital bed.

"Scary. Amazing. You couldn't breathe. You couldn't talk. It was pitch black," said Bobbe Marion, a Plainfield resident who remembers the 1990 twister.

Marion still works yards from where she nearly died. She and others took cover inside a cinderblock room on the campus of Plainfield High School.

"Little by little they dug us out one at a time. We stood up, and the building was under our knees, that's how down it went. It imploded," said Marion.

The tornado that tore a path from Rockford through Joliet, carving an especially cruel impression on Plainfield, was a rare category F-5, the only storm of that strength to ever strike the Chicago area.

The National Weather Service was caught completely off guard. Its main radar system was down for repair.

Doppler-infused NEXRAD radar was still a few years away. And the funnel cloud spawned by this particular tornado was masked by huge, dark walls of rain.

"The rain was so heavy I couldn't see," said Donald Bennett, former Plainfield police chief.

Bennett was the Plainfield Police chief at the time. He says, in the early weeks and months, no one imagined this town would bounce back.

"Why would someone come here after the devastation?" said Bennett. "Would it be just the opposite: 'I don't want to be here?' "

Back in 1990, fewer than 10,000 people called Plainfield home. Today, nearly 40,000 people live in the southwest suburb.

Standing near a memorial honoring the 29 who died, Plainfield's mayor says the construction that followed the storm was a blessing in disguise -- a brand new high school, countless new homes. Overall, a new energy.

"I think a lot of people read about Plainfield, looked it all up and decided this might be a good home, a place to raise their children," said Michael Collins, Plainfield mayor.

Marion is celebrating her 22nd year with the Plainfield school district. Since the storm, she has become a trained weather spotter who takes no days for granted.

"It took me up until five years ago to not have to take tranquilizers if I knew the weather was supposed to get bad," Marion said. "Mother Nature, you gotta listen to her. She's a pretty strong lady."

The tornado's aftermath led to changes at the National Weather Service, including new radar and warning systems. Back then, tornado warnings were usually only issued after funnel clouds were spotted.

Today, using Doppler radar, the weather service is able to give -- on average -- 11 minutes warning before a tornado hits. They are re hoping to increase that to 20 minutes.

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