As heavy gusts toppled trees and power lines and downpours swamped city streets, tens of thousands of Bears fans were evacuated from their Soldier Field seats and forced to take cover inside or huddle behind the historic stone colonnades.
As night fell and temperatures dropped, emergency workers were still searching debris fields that had once been neighborhoods and the homeless were seeking temporary shelter.
Meteorologists had predicted the violent storms days ahead of time, anticipating volatile atmospheric conditions that are freakish for a season when tornadoes are a relative rarity. “Weather doesn't get more extreme than this in Illinois very often,” said Matt Friedlein, a National Weather Service meteorologist.
The storms exploded over Illinois when gusting winter jet streams from the northwest collided with the unusually warm and moist air that had arrived Saturday.
“You've got wintertime winds in the atmosphere above summertime moisture,” Friedlein said. “While unusual, when that happens, you're going to have very strong storms that move very quickly.”
At Soldier Field, Bears fans scattered for cover under roiling skies as the game was postponed because of the threat of lightning. Though rains and high winds battered the city, temporarily closing some streets, officials received no reports of weather-related injuries, said Melissa Stratton, spokeswoman with the Chicago Office of Emergency Management and Communications.
As of Sunday evening, crews were working to clear streets, removing some 170 tree branches or fallen trees and clearing out about 40 flooded viaducts. The Department of Water Management also received 27 calls of flooded basements, Stratton said.
Across Cook County, officials were reporting relatively minor damage. Sophia Ansari, Cook County Sheriff's Office spokeswoman, said a motorist was stuck under 4 feet of water in Palos Township, near Orland Park. No injuries had been reported as of Sunday evening, Ansari said.
In Lake County, trees and power lines were down, and some traffic signals were damaged, said an official with the Lake County Sheriff's Office.
Will County officials, meanwhile, said homes were damaged and there were reports of a tornado touchdown in Diamond near Interstate 55. The storm caused “significant property damage” to a local bar and a nearby church.
Charles Pelkie, information officer for the Will County Emergency Management Agency, said some people were temporarily trapped in the church. But they were quickly rescued, and none had significant injuries, he said.
“I-55 was a mess,” Pelkie said. “There were wires down — trees, debris blocking the road.”
In Grundy County, a powerful tornado touched down in Coal City with possible wind speeds of 111 to 135 mph, the National Weather Service confirmed.
Washington and Pekin, communities about 20 miles apart, near Peoria, appeared to sustain the worst tornado damage in central Illinois. Whole blocks were leveled in Washington, prompting the Illinois National Guard to send a 10-person firefighting and search and rescue team, and officials were still trying to determine the extent of injuries Sunday evening.
“I was hiding in the bathroom with pillows over my head,” said Karla Riter, who lives in Sunnydale Estates in the city. “When I opened the door, my roof was gone.”
The Illinois Emergency Management Agency confirmed that at least one person had died in the area. No other details were immediately available.
Kristen Johnson, a spokeswoman for St. Francis Medical Center in Peoria, said the hospital had treated victims with head injuries, broken bones, cuts and bruises. Eight went to the trauma unit, though two had since been moved and their status was unknown.
“We anticipate the worst is over,” Johnson said.
Sara Sparkman, a spokeswoman with the Tazewell County Emergency Management Agency, credited the county's early warning system for reducing the toll. “We hope that contributed to the low injuries that we are having,” she said.
In southern Illinois, a tornado ravaged Washington County about 12:30 p.m., obliterating farms and livestock and killing Joseph Hoy, 80, and his sister Frances Hoy, 78, Washington County Coroner Mark Styninger said.
Joseph Hoy's body was found in a field about 100 yards east of his farmhouse. His sister's body was found inside the home beneath debris, he said.
“(Joseph Hoy's) house was blown away by a tornado,” said Styninger, who knew the siblings personally. “They were just very nice people.”
Tribune reporters Bonnie Miller Rubin, Michelle Manchir, Geoff Ziezulewicz, Joseph Ryan, George Knue and Cynthia Dizikes contributed.