Remembering the Utica-Granville tornado of 2004: ‘It just looked like a war zone’

Community to reflect on 20-year anniversary of fatal storm

A comparison of the corner of Church and Mill Streets taken 20 years apart. The photo on the left was taken on Wednesday April 21, 2004 (the day after the tornado) and the photo on the right was taken on Tuesday April 16, 2024.

Dave Edgcomb was in paramedic training at Illinois Valley Community College when the alert came: There’s a tornado – take cover.

It was April 20, 2004. Edgcomb then was fire chief in Utica and with him was Shelba Bimm from Utica Ambulance. They left their classroom and went into the bowels of IVCC until the storm passed. Then came the word that Utica had been hit hard.

Granville also sustained tornado damage and a woman there died from medical problems later attributed to the storm. Utica, however, was the site of a search and rescue – then a recovery – that drew a much larger fire and EMS response.

Edgcomb raced back to the village and never would forget the devastation that came into view as he crossed the Illinois River.

“I remember looking at Utica as we crossed the bridge and it just looked like a war zone,” he said. As soon as he was on scene he radioed for help from wherever he could get it.

“We’ve had a major tornado hit Utica. Send me everything you got.”

“And then in came the troops. They started rolling in,” Edgcomb said. “And the next two weeks are just a blur. I’ve been trying to recollect things and I just can’t.”

Many of the heroes who stepped up that day are gone. Shelba Bimm, who tended to others even though her home was destroyed, and Bill Gallup and Ed Rogers from Utica Fire. Utica Mayor Fred Esmond and trustees Ron and Mary Pawlak, who launched the rebuilding process. Engineer Roger Chamlin, who surveyed damaged buildings.

Other witnesses and survivors have distinct memories. Tom Templeton was La Salle County’s sheriff at the time and was on scene quickly enough to activate, for the first time, the Illinois Law Enforcement Alarm System.

“I was one of the first guys there, because I followed it (the tornado) in,” Templeton said. “It was very, very surreal, with the power lines arcing and the trees down. It was an amazing thing to see. It was horrible, but it was amazing to see the damage that it caused.”

Jody Bernard, La Salle County’s then-coroner, well remembers the frenetic search for survivors at the Milestone Restaurant and Lounge, which collapsed under the force of the storm and trapped people inside.

“The most vivid memory I have is the look in the eyes of those first-responders,” said Jody Bernard, La Salle County’s then-coroner. “This was their town, they knew all those people but they still had a job to do. They all carried on as professionals.”

Joe Bernardoni, Utica’s police chief at the time, tried to restrain the many onlookers from approaching the remains of the Milestone while first-responders frantically dug up the rubble, some with only their hands.

Bernardoni was shaken by the loss of life, but immensely proud of the crews who labored selflessly in search of survivors.

“They were 100% excellent,” he said. “They couldn’t have done any better.”

A few people emerged from the rubble. From his hospital bed, Troy Grove resident Richard Little told the NewsTribune in 2004 that he, while taking cover in the basement, found a spot against a chest freezer. It was a good choice: a beam or piece of ceiling landed against the freezer to create a “cubby hole” that kept him from getting crushed.

“I didn’t have luck for winning the lottery or even for a little lottery ticket,” Little said then. “But if I’m gonna have luck, Tuesday (April 20) was the day to have it. I guess I’ve been saving it.”

Bernard recalled a moment when she realized many of those trapped would not come out alive. A search-and-rescue dog sat perched near the rubble with its head bowed. It was clear form the dog’s posture that it had detected bodies, but none alive. Bernard asked the handler if she could give the dog a consoling pet.

“I have never forgotten that poor dog,” she said. “Ordinarily, the handlers don’t want you touching their dog, but this handler said, ‘Please do.’”

Eight bodies were carried out of the remains of the Milestone. Bernard reported later that all died quickly: Two were crushed to death and six more died from traumatic asphyxia.

The body of 47-year-old Jay Vezain of Utica was recovered first at 6:59 a.m., followed by 40-year-old Carol Schultheis five minutes later.

It would be another four hours before the first, 18-year-old Michael Miller, would be pulled from the basement at 11:12 a.m.

Within 16 minutes of Miller’s recovery, searchers found, in order: 48-year-old Lawrence Ventrice, 67-year-old Beverly Wood, 49-year-old Marian Ventrice, 63-year-old Wayne Ball and 82-year-old Helen Mahnke. The search ended with Mahnke’s recovery at 11:28 a.m. Wednesday, April 21.

The death toll eventually would rise to 10 people. About a week later, 82-year-old Vivian C. Goetz of Granville died following surgery for a heart attack she sustained minutes after the tornado swept over her Granville home. Months later, the death of infant Sean Kennedy Brown, who was born and died June 2, was attributed to tornado-related stress.

Templeton was up for days managing the flow of visiting first-responders, utility companies, news crews among numerous others. There was, he said, no need to send for reinforcements to relieve the crews.

“Nobody wanted to go home,” Templeton said. “Everybody wanted to stay.”

In their words

Shaw Local News Network gathered some of the descriptions of the tornado from 20 years ago from residents who spoke with the NewsTribune that day or shortly after.

“The siren went off and we came out and looked past the grain elevator and there it was. We watched it for about five seconds then realized it was heading straight for us” – Lisle Elsbury, Utica, in 2004

“(They) said get in the basement and we ran – and you could feel the house shake” – Bonnie Hartman, Utica, in 2004

“I looked out the window and saw pieces of houses flying by. I thought, ‘We’re done. We’re dead’” – Tom Hallett, Utica, in 2004

“It’s like a bad dream. It’s like someone put a bomb in the middle of town and let it blow” – Tom Guerrero, Utica, in 2004

“I knew it was really bad when huge chunks of debris were flying away over the water tower. Unbelievable.” – Norm Liles, rural Granville, in 2004

“I’ve been here over 50 years and we’ve never been hit by a tornado like this” – Jim Carboni, Granville, in 2004

“I’m just ... I’m just really angry right now” – Greg Sherman, Utica, in 2004

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