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Plainfield 1990 tornado was unique in its formation, destruction, rebuilding

Looking back 25 years reminds of true impact

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PLAINFIELD – Dark, ominous clouds descended upon Plainfield shortly after 3 p.m. Aug. 28, 1990.

Residents who saw the storm before it dropped its clouds reported seeing a mesmerizing blend of color paint the horizon as hot, humid weather turned to rain, which furled into large hail.

Plainfield Police Commander Kevin Greco — at that time a new patrol officer fresh out of the academy — was just about to leave the station, located on Route 59 near the railroad viaduct, when he noticed the storm coming in. He decided to wait.

He and the police chief at the time, Don Bennett, went to the back door of the station, and watched the storm approach.

"So we watched this big wall, big green wall. I'll never forget the color," Greco said. "We could see it coming."

The hail started and the power and phone lines went out.

The storm produced a tornado with winds up to 310 miles per hour that ripped through much of Plainfield and parts of Crest Hill and Joliet. It killed 29 people — 24 instantly — injured 350, damaged 470 homes and destroyed another 1,000 homes, according to National Weather Service data.

Everything about the tornado was unique, from its destructive edge to the path it took. And 25 years later, the people of Plainfield have healed from – but not forgotten – the most defining moment of the village's history.

Perfect storm

The supercell storm that produced the tornado started in Wisconsin, according to the National Weather Service. As it moved into Illinois, the storm created two quick tornadoes and golf ball-sized hail that caused minor damage about 1:42 p.m. in and near Pecatonica and Rockford.

An increasingly unstable atmosphere and high temperatures in the 90s added to the storm's strength. A cold front moved the storm as it swallowed the warm, humid air. And the dew point — the temperature at which water vapor condenses — approached 80 degrees, making the storm more unstable.

After the storm destroyed parts of an airport in Aurora, the Plainfield tornado started forming near Oswego and touched down about 3:30 p.m. in the Wheatland Plains subdivision.

The rain-wrapped tornado then traveled 16.4 miles in eight minutes, spanning 200 yards to a half mile in width and swallowing Plainfield High School and St. Mary Immaculate Parish church in its path.

Tetsuya Fujita, the founder of the original Fujita tornado-rating scale, himself gave the tornado the highest rating on the scale, an F5, due to the combination of size, speed and destruction. F5 tornadoes – less than 0.1 percent of all tornadoes — have wind speeds in excess of 261 miles per hour, an average damage path of 0.68 miles and destructive damage.

As the storm passed Route 59, Renwick Road and Interstate 55, it leveled the Lily Cache, Peerless and Crystal Lawns subdivisions. It entered Crest Hill, demolishing Crest Hill Lakes apartments and instantly killing eight people, before diminishing and dissipating in Joliet.

The National Weather Service issued its first tornado warning 13 minutes after the tornado hit Crest Hill.

Witness to destruction

Paul Likes was a recent college graduate doing landscape work in Bolingbrook that day. He was let out early because of the bad weather.

He was crossing into Plainfield down Route 59 when the skies turned black.

"It was so deathly humid and hot, that my windows were foggy," Likes said. "Even though it was that hot I had my defrosters on full blast with my head out the window, I could hardly see. Then all of a sudden – boom, the temperature drops 30 to 40 degrees and I'm freezing."

As he neared his home by the corner of Main and Lockport streets, taking time to drive around downed wires and debris on the road, he saw the totality of the destruction.

"It looked like a bomb went off," Likes said.

An hour later he made it to his family's house in Joliet. His mother had a bad "premonition" about Likes' eldest brother Charlie and asked Paul to look for him.

Charles Likes was among the 29 people who were killed. He was found near his home in the Crystal Lawns subdivision in Joliet, one of the two who died there.

Southwest of Likes' apartment, Dawn Kelly was in her home fixing dinner when she saw a large, dark green cloud with white caps at the top in the horizon. She called her fifth- and sixth-grade children, who were on the second floor, to come down to the basement.

As Kelly ushered them downstairs, she heard the tornado loom over the home. The winds pushed a cabinet onto the basement door, shutting it and pushing Kelly down the stairs.

"By the time I hit the basement floor, it was done," she said.

Further along the path, three people died at what was the now unrecognizable Plainfield High School.

About 100 members of the football and volleyball teams were on the practice fields outside the high school when the storm hit, according to Herald-News reports. They were corralled inside the building just as the tornado started ripping away the walls.

Three also died at St. Mary's Immaculate Parish church, which was left with half a roof. Parishioners who remain at the church 25 years later remember how the nearly 300-mile-per-hour winds churned the base of the church's steeple cross, ominously pushing the cross upside down.

But there were signs of hope too: A statue of the Virgin Mary was left untouched.

Relief efforts

After the storm passed, Greco suited up again and was tasked with checking the downtown area. He was driving down Fox River Street at Chicago Street when he noticed a large downed tree blocking the road.

When he got out, a local resident flagged him down and told him the real damage was on James Street. The street was unrecognizable, with house after house demolished.

"I was totally bewildered," Greco said. "I just couldn't figure it out because James Street was gone."

While Greco was on the scene near the DuPage River, he was in radio contact with a few other officers who described the damage at the church and other areas. His first instinct from training was to radio Illinois State Police to request backup. But the state police told him they were already responding to damage along Interstate 55.

"I remember I got off the radio and I went, 'Well, nobody covered that in the academy,'" Greco said.

By 4 p.m., Greco said he and Bennett requested help from police and firefighters from other municipalities.

"At that time we didn't train for disasters or anything like that," said Greco, who started helping people on James Street and at the high school, looking for the deceased and sending the injured to a triage at the fire station.

"We could not do it if it were not for all the outside help we received," Greco said. "Not only that day, but weeks afterward."

Ambulances from Saint Joseph Medical Center started pulling up to the scenes of the major points of destruction about 75 minutes after the tornado touched down, according to Herald-News reports. The hospital developed a traffic jam near the trauma entrance on Glenwood Avenue in Joliet.

In the next several days and weeks, it took a community, county and statewide effort to address the debris and emotional damage caused by the tornado.

The United Way of Will County helped organize relief funds for the victims, President and CEO Mike Hennessy said.

By Aug. 23, 1991, United Way, in coordination with other organizations, raised more than $2.5 million. The Salvation Army and Catholic Charities set up relief distribution centers in northern Plainfield and Joliet.

Hennessy said the goal was to prevent victims from going through any red tape, and to fill in the gaps between federal aid funding.

The rebuilding process took years.

But out of the rubble emerged a new Plainfield.