PLAINFIELD – Hundreds of heads faced down in reverence Friday afternoon as former Plainfield Mayor Mary Latta read the names of the 29 victims of the 1990 tornado, which wrought its destruction exactly 25 years ago.
"These names will be in our memories forever and for years to come," Latta said. "Let us hope that the winds of fury never attempt to come through Plainfield again."
The Plainfield community held the somber commemoration ceremony for the 25th anniversary of the tornado at 3 p.m. around the Plainfield Tornado Memorial on Fort Beggs Street. Latta read the names at 3:32 p.m., when 25 years ago the tornado was on its path through Plainfield, Crest Hill and Joliet.
Survivors of the tornado were joined by newer residents, local and state legislators, and members of the media.
After the ceremony, a panel discussion with meteorologists Tom Skilling, Steve Baskerville and Paul Sirvatka was held at the Plainfield Central High School auditorium.
The ceremony began with a posting of colors by representatives from Boy Scout Troop 19, the Plainfield Police Department and the Plainfield Fire Protection District.
Mayor Michael Collins welcomed attendees, remarking that it was a larger turnout than he expected. He said the event was being held to honor the people who lost loved ones in the tornado.
"I remember after the storm had passed and everything else, I stood at Route 30 and 143rd Street and looked south," Collins said. "And I could look from there all the way to St. Mary [Immaculate Parish] and there was a clear path. It was like someone mowed the grass between there and here."
But Collins said Plainfield grew in both resolve and population as a result of the tornado.
State Rep. Mark Batinick, R-Plainfield, and state Sen. Jennifer Bertino-Tarrant, D-Shorewood, also recalled where they were during the storm.
"While I didn't experience the mass destruction, I did experience the village's rebirth," said Batinick, who moved to Plainfield shortly after the tornado struck.
"I remember desperately trying to call [home] from college," Bertino-Tarrant said, adding she was in disbelief looking at photos of the destruction, but inspired by the stories of courage in the aftermath.
The Rev. Kristen J. Larson, senior pastor at First United Methodist Church in Glen Ellyn, also spoke at the ceremony. She recounted when the storm hit. She was visiting a parishioner who lived a couple blocks east of St. Mary.
"The house shook to its foundations, long terrifying seconds," Larson said. "But it was only a matter of minutes. And those were the longest minutes of my life."
The Rev. Odis Weaver from Friendship Baptist Church and the Rev. David Medow from St. Mary read prayers. Medow placed a wreath on a stand next to the memorial.
During the ceremony, the Plainfield Central Wind Ensemble played "Amazing Grace" by William Himes and "With Each Sunset" by Richard Saucedo. The Concert Choir sang "Earth Song" by Frank Ticheli and "Gaelic Blessing" by John Rutter.
After the ceremony, which was also attended by the three meteorologists, Joliet Mayor Bob O'Dekirk, Crest Hill Mayor Ray Soliman and Will County Executive Larry Walsh, some residents could be seen wiping tears from their eyes, while others lined up to meet Skilling and Baskerville.
Kristine Weiss, who was in attendance, was in the basement of her Plainfield home when the tornado hit. She was lucky, but two of her teachers, Sister Mary Keenan and Gloria Sanchez, and a neighbor, Howard Hawes Jr., lost their lives.
"Being here is a chance to reflect and remember them and it was a powerful day that changed my life forever, and was so emotional," she said.
Changes in meteorology
After the ceremony, guests were invited to a panel discussion with Skilling, Baskerville and Sirvatka at 4 p.m. about the state of weather predicting and data in 1990 compared to today.
Sirvatka, a professor of meteorology at College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn, recalled his experience as a storm chaser who witnessed the formation of the storm that produced the tornado near Sugar Grove.
"I've seen a number of storms and this looked the same," he said.
Sirvatka drove to Sugar Grove and took video of a rear flank gust front cloud formation and a funnel cloud forming. He then took cover in a gas station. He said he had a gut feeling there would be a tornado.
"I remember saying to myself very clearly, 'Well somebody has to be seeing this,'" Sirvatka said. "As it turns out there was no report of the tornado. Not one report made it to the weather service until 3:45 p.m."
Baskerville remembers reporting on keeping cool in the hot and humid weather earlier that day.
"We got a call [around 4:30 p.m.] that something had happened in the Crest Hill area," he said. "Which brings up the point how slow information traveleled back then."
Baskerville ended up at the Crest Hill Lakes apartment complex that night, where nine people died.
He showed some clips of his TV news reports from Aug. 28, 1990, and a photo of him at his work desk around that time to show the audience the tools meteorologists worked with, including typewriters and maps in lieu of today's computers and Doppler radar images.
Skilling read accounts of the tornado, and answered several questions ranging from the best place to go during a tornado — the basement — to the legitimacy of climate change, which he said was indeed occurring.
He broke down for a moment when talking about the lives lost from tornadoes.
"[The tornado] began a process of figuring out how we can improve the system," he said, adding that the opening of the Romeoville office of the National Weather Service and the advent of social media were key improvements.
"It's a pretty amazing story," he said. "There has been a lot of progress made, thankfully."