By Mary Wisniewski
WASHINGTON, Illinois (Reuters) - When a powerful tornado bore down on the small city of Washington, Illinois, on Sunday, Ryan Bowers took his wife's advice and sheltered in the basement with their 2-1/2-month-old daughter and their pet dogs.
Winds of up to 200 miles per hour leveled their home, along with a large swath of the city of 15,000 people east of Peoria, but the Bowers survived, as did many of their neighbors.
The twister, part of a fast-moving storm that hammered much of the Midwest, killed eight people in Illinois and Michigan, but many survived thanks to quick reactions like Bowers's and because their homes had basements to flee to.
"I have to believe that 90 percent of those people who survived were probably in their basement, taking cover, or at church," said Washington Mayor Gary Manier, who noted that he was among the many town residents who took refuge in church basements when they heard tornado warning sirens.
"We thank God that our community listened and took heed," Manier said, standing in a destroyed section of Washington where bits of American flags and insulation from destroyed houses clung to trees that had been stripped of most of their branches and remaining leaves by the storm.
Bowers, 33, said that he normally disregarded tornado warnings but headed to his basement after seeing the debris cloud barreling toward his house.
"I ran back inside, ran in the basement, not 15 seconds later our basement windows were sucked in and everything was twirling about," said Bowers. "Everything was white and all I could hear was snapping ... Things were dropping on top of me and splitting in two."
He and his wife Andrea, 32, briefly returned on Monday to retrieve a family Bible and a pink baby rattle that was their daughter Sydney's favorite toy.
UP TO 500 HOMES DAMAGED
As they were sorting through the wreckage, a police officer approached and told them to leave. Authorities had closed the destroyed area, where buildings were reduced to rubble and cars were turned upside down, out of concern that people could be injured while attempting to retrieve possessions.
Jonathan Monken, director of the Illinois Emergency Management Agency (IEMA), said officials would allow people to return to the affected area after they confirmed it was safe.
"The sooner we can get residents in the better," Monken said. "We want to be able to get that debris cleared so we can start that process of rebuilding as soon as possible."
Manier estimated that 250 to 500 homes had been damaged by the tornado, rated as the second-most powerful magnitude of twister, which hit the city east of Peoria with winds of 166 to 200 miles per hour (267-322 kilometers per hour).
The storm killed three people in Massac County, two in Washington County and one in the city of Washington, in Tazewell County, said Patti Thompson of the IMEA.
Illinois State Police spokesman Dustin Pierce said about 120 people were injured in Washington.
An 80-year-old man and his 78-year-old sister were killed in Washington County, about 200 miles south of Peoria, County Coroner Mark Styninger said.
The three were killed in Massac County on the Kentucky border when a tornado devastated several neighborhoods, emergency officials said.
Rescue workers in central Michigan found the body of a 59-year-old man entangled in downed power lines on Sunday night. The man went outside to investigate a noise, according to Shiawassee County Sheriff's Department Lieutenant David Kirk.
A 21-year-old man was killed on Sunday night when a tree fell on his car in the central Michigan town of Leslie, said Jackson County Sheriff Steven Rand. It was unclear whether the man struck the tree while driving or if high winds in the area toppled the tree, Rand said.
The storm also damaged homes and building in Indiana and Kentucky, though no fatalities were reported in those states.
The unusual late-season storms moved dangerously fast, tracking east at 60 miles per hour, with the bulk of the damage spanning about five hours, Thompson said.
BASEMENT SAFE HAVENS
Survivors said they rode out the storm in their basements, which are common in homes in the affected area, a fact that may have helped hold down the death toll, officials said. In May, a monster, top-category tornado killed 24 people in Moore, Oklahoma, a part of the United States where basements are less common.
Nancy Rampy, 62, said she fled to her basement when she heard the storm sirens blaring on Sunday.
"I heard what sounded like 12 trains just roaring down the tracks, and it just wouldn't stop. It just kept coming and coming," Rampy said. "I ran to the basement, sat in the basement with my flashlight in the dark and just prayed, 'Let it be over soon.'"
Rampy's house was spared.
"The good news is the tornado warning system worked, so there wasn't a lot of loss of life," said U.S. Representative Aaron Schock, a Republican whose district includes Washington, Illinois. "These people knew what was coming, and they were smart and took cover."
(This story has been corrected to change infant's age in paragraph 1)
(Additional reporting by Brendan O'Brien in Milwaukee, Carey Gillam in Kansas City and Scott DiSavino in New York; Writing by Scott Malone; Editing by Lisa Von Ahn, Maureen Bavdek, Jim Marshall and Bob Burgdorfer)