HARRISBURG, Ill.-- A pre-dawn tornado killed six people in southern Illinois Wednesday, smashing hundreds of homes and blowing apart a strip mall and a church as it made its punishing march across the region.
All of the dead were from the small city of Harrisburg, which appeared hardest hit. One woman whose home was all but destroyed said she ran in the dark to her bathtub to take shelter as the winds shattered windows and turned the contents of the building to rubble. Only the walls were left standing.
"Everything around me was going to pieces. ... I just took a run for it and got into the bathroom," said 61-year-old Margaret Shimkus. "All I can tell you is I was praying and asking God to please take care of me and take care of my family."
The storm, which produced multiple reports of tornadoes, struck around 5 a.m., violently sweeping the area as people slept. An estimated 200-300 homes were hit in a swath of destruction about a mile and a half wide, said police Lt. Tracy Felty of the Saline County Sheriff's Office. Two dozen businesses were also damaged or destroyed, most of them in a strip mall that was flattened by the storm.
"It looks like a bomb went off," Felty said of the damage in the city of 9,000 people.
After hours of house-to-house searches, he said the confirmed death toll stood at six, revising an earlier tally of 10 provided by state emergency management officials.
Gov. Pat Quinn was to visit the area later Wednesday. A shelter has been set up at the city's First Baptist Church, Felty said.
The storm partially damaged the city's medical center and left staff there scrambling to treat an influx of injured, the hospital's top administrator said.
Harrisburg Medical Center CEO Vince Ashley could not immediately estimate how many of the injured were treated at the 78-bed hospital. No one was injured at the medical center, he said.
"It's been quite a rush. They're still coming in, but we've been able to keep up with the flow of injured coming in," Ashley told The Associated Press more than three hours after the storm passed. "Helicopters have been coming in and out here all morning."
The hospital had ample warning of the storm's approach and moved its patients to secured areas before it hit, he said. But the storm knocked out the site's heating and air conditioning systems, prompting the hospital to transfer some patients to other hospitals.
The medical center's emergency room was unscathed.
Classes at Harrisburg schools were canceled. Electricity provider Ameren Illinois said the storm knocked out power to more than 12,000 customers for several hours and some 3,000 still had no service by early afternoon.
In nearby Gallatin County, police say the storm destroyed a Catholic church in the village of Ridgway, leaving only the front wall standing.
The National Weather Service office in Paducah, Ky., was still issuing severe weather warnings late Wednesday morning, according to meteorologist Beverly Poole.
"This is our worst fear as far as thunderstorms becoming tornadic after the midnight hour, when people are asleep. This is what we certainly don't like to see happen," she said.
Weather service crews will survey the Harrisburg area to determine what category tornado struck the city, Poole said.
The Paducah weather service office covers 58 counties in Missouri, Illinois, Indiana and Kentucky. The storm system hit locations in all four states, and more than 50 warnings have been issued. And another storm system was forecast to hit the same region Friday.
"It looks very similar," she said, with the only difference being that it doesn't look like the storms will hit in the middle of the night.