LocalLit book review: A teen’s experience of the 1990 Plainfield tornado

Thoughts on ‘With Only Seconds to Spare: How one family survived the 1990 Plainfield Tornado’

A rescue worker walks through the devastation at Plainfield High School, which was hit by the tornado that spun through the village Aug. 28, 1990. Two fatalities were reported at the school and one nearby in the administration building.

Aug. 28, 2020 was the 30th anniversary since the Plainfield tornado.

Maybe because I never saw the aftermath except in photos (I had pregnancy complications and an extended recovery), the entire event feels a little surreal to me, even though I’ve since talked to survivors when writing stories for The Herald-News.

Maybe that’s when, when I recently found “With Only Seconds to Spare: How one family survived the 1990 Plainfield Tornado” by Melissa Antink on Amazon, I immediately downloaded it to my Kindle.

Here is the book’s Amazon description: “One family’s story of survival when a devastating tornado hit their town and their home. Mysteriously, none of them know who told them it was a tornado and they needed to take cover. Was it a guardian angel?”

Is this book an autobiography? A biography? A work of fiction? The author does not make it clear. But the college student does have the same first name as the author.

It’s also not a long story, about 27 pages, and I read it in half an hour.

What made this book an interesting read for me was experiencing the events as a young college student experienced them, starting with the details of the afternoon leading up to the actual tornado.

When Melissa notices the unusual colors in the sky, she debates on whether she should leave early for work to beat the storm or risk being a few minutes late and wait for it to pass. She felt uneasy and couldn’t explain why. The fact her dog Ginger wouldn’t go outside added to her trepidation.

Finally Melissa decided to call work to say she would be late. But the phone was dead. In the meantime, her sister came home from a friend’s house. A few minutes later, everyone was fleeing to the basement.

The prose in the book is simple, matter-of-fact and easy to understand. Still, the author paints some evocative descriptions:

For instance, when the family emerged from the basement and into the pouring rain to head for safety, the immensity of the tragedy hit them: “All of the houses as far as the eye could see were heavily damaged or completely destroyed.”

Another passage tells how Melissa’s uncle lived on a farm in Wisconsin. After he heard on the news about the tornado in Plainfield, he immediately jumped into his jeep and drove to the nearest payphone because his own phone was out of service: “It wasn’t until he reached the payphone that he realized he was only wearing boxer shorts.”

When the father returned to his home, he saw a bottle of whiskey that was standing upright on the ground in front of his refrigerator, as “as if someone took it down and gently set it on the floor.”

A couple of the cabinets above the refrigerator were still standing and the glasses were in their proper positions. So he grabbed a glass, took a cola out of the refrigerator and mixed it with the whiskey: “Seeing all of the damage for the first time, and everything he worked for completely destroyed, there is no harm in having a drink.”

Thirty years later, the Plainfield tornado remains a significant one in the history of weather. The National Weather Service’s website said:

· It was the first ever tornado greater than an F3 rating, since records began in 1950, to occur during the month of August in Illinois.

· It was the second killer tornado since 1950 to occur during the month of August in Illinois.

· It remains the only F5/EF5 rated tornado documented in the U.S. during the month of August.

· It approached from the northwest when most tornadoes approach from the southwest.

· Its low clouds and rain surrounding it made it difficult to see. Consequently, no known photographs or videos of this tornado exist.

In addition this tornado,

· Killed 29 people and injured 350.

· Left a 16.4 mile-long damage path which ranged from 600 yards to a half a mile in width.

· Caused an estimated total of $160 million dollars in damages.

· Destroyed 470 homes and damaged 1,000.

Buy “With Only Seconds to Spare: How one family survived the 1990 Plainfield Tornado” on Amazon.

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Contact Denise M. Baran-Unland at 815-280-4122 or dunland@shawmedia.com.