A monster storm system tore through the South and Midwest on Friday, spawning deadly weather including tornadoes that shredded homes and shopping centres in Arkansas, collapsed a theatre roof during a heavy metal concert in Illinois and made a fatal sweep into rural Indiana.
The storm caused three deaths in Sullivan County, Indiana, Emergency Management Director Jim Pirtle said in an email to The Associated Press early Saturday. The storm damaged homes and some residents were missing in the county seat of Sullivan, located near the Illinois state line, 152 kilometres southwest of Indianapolis.
At least one person was killed and more than two dozen were hurt, some critically, in the Little Rock area, authorities said. The town of Wynne in northeastern Arkansas was also devastated, and officials reported two dead there, along with destroyed homes and people trapped in the debris.
Authorities said a theatre roof collapsed during a tornado in Belvidere, Ill., killing one person and injuring 28, five of them severely. The Belvidere Police Department said the collapse occurred as a heavy storm rolled through the area and that calls began coming from the theatre at 7:48 p.m. It said that an initial assessment was that a tornado had caused the damage.
The collapse occurred at the Apollo Theatre during a heavy metal concert in the town located 113 kilometres northwest of Chicago.
Belvidere Fire Department Chief Shawn Schadle said 260 people were in the venue. He said first responders also rescued someone from an elevator and had to grapple with downed power lines outside the theatre.
Belvidere Police Chief Shane Woody described the scene after the collapse as “chaos, absolute chaos.”
Gabrielle Lewellyn had just entered the theatre when a portion of the ceiling collapsed.
“I was there within a minute before it came down,” she told WTVO-TV. “The winds, when I was walking up to the building, it went like from zero to a thousand within five seconds.”
Some people rushed to lift the collapsed portion of the ceiling and pull people out of the rubble, said Lewellyn, who wasn’t hurt.
“They dragged someone out from the rubble and I sat with him and I held his hand and I was (telling him) ‘It’s going to be OK.’ I didn’t really know much else what to do.”
Broad swath of U.S. threatened
There were more confirmed twisters in Iowa and wind-whipped grass fires blazed in Oklahoma, as the storm system threatened a broad swath of the country home to some 85 million people.
The destructive weather came as U.S. President Joe Biden toured the aftermath of a deadly tornado that struck in Mississippi one week ago and promised the government would help the area recover.
The Little Rock tornado tore first through neighbourhoods in the western part of the city and shredded a small shopping centre that included a Kroger grocery store. It then crossed the Arkansas River into North Little Rock and surrounding cities, where widespread damage was reported to homes, businesses and vehicles.
In the evening, officials in Pulaski County announced a confirmed fatality in North Little Rock but did not immediately give details.
Baptist Health Medical Center-Little Rock officials told KATV in the afternoon that 21 people had checked in there with tornado-caused injuries, including five in critical condition.
Mayor Frank Scott Jr., who announced that he was requesting assistance from the National Guard, tweeted in the evening that property damage was extensive and “we are still responding.”
Really quiet, then really loud
Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders activated 100 members of the Arkansas National Guard to help local authorities respond to the damage throughout the state.
In Little Rock, resident Niki Scott took cover in the bathroom after her husband called to say a tornado was headed her way. She could hear glass shattering as the tornado roared past, and emerged afterward to find that her house was one of the few on her street that didn’t have a tree fall on it.
“It’s just like everyone says. It got really quiet, then it got really loud,” Scott said afterward, as chainsaws roared and sirens blared in the area.
At Clinton National Airport, passengers and workers sheltered temporarily in bathrooms.
“Praying for all those who were and remain in the path of this storm,” Sanders, who declared a state of emergency, said on Twitter.
About 80 kilometres west of Memphis, Tenn., the small city of Wynne, Ark., saw widespread tornado damage, Sanders confirmed.
‘We can’t get home’
St. Francis County Coroner Miles J. Kimble told the AP by phone Friday night that he was assisting the Cross County coroner in Wynne and that two people died there in the tornado.
The governor at a briefing with Little Rock officials Friday night said it was possible the number of deaths could rise.
City Council member Lisa Powell Carter said the town of Wynne was without power and roads were full of debris.
“I’m in a panic trying to get home, but we can’t get home,” she said. “Wynne is so demolished … there are houses destroyed, trees down on streets.”
The unrelenting tornadoes continued spawning and touching down in the area into the night.
The police department in Covington, Tenn., said on Facebook that the west Tennessee city was impassable after power lines and trees fell on roads when the storm passed through Friday evening. Authorities in Tipton County, north of Memphis, said a tornado appeared to have touched down near the middle school in Covington and in other locations in the rural county.