By Mary Wisniewski
WASHINGTON, Illinois (Reuters) - A fast-moving storm system triggered multiple tornadoes on Sunday, killing at least five people, injuring about 40 and flattening large parts of the city of Washington, Illinois as it tore across the Midwest, officials said.
The storm also forced the Chicago Bears to halt their game against the Baltimore Ravens and encourage fans at Soldier Field to seek shelter as menacing clouds rolled in. Chicago's two major airports also briefly stopped traffic with the metropolitan area was under a tornado watch.
The city of Washington, Illinois, was hit especially hard by what the National Weather Service called a "large and extremely dangerous" tornado.
"It's a sad day in Washington. The devastation is just unbelievable. You just can't imagine. It looks like a war zone in our community," said Washington Mayor Gary Manier.
"It's kind of widespread and went right through our community of 15,000 people," he added, saying hundreds of homes in the town, 145 miles southwest of Chicago, had been destroyed.
The state Emergency Management Agency said one person was killed in Washington. Thirty-one people injured by the storm were being treated at St. Francis Medical Center, one of the main hospitals in nearby Peoria, according to hospital spokeswoman Amy Paul. Eight had traumatic injuries.
Two people were killed in Washington County, Illinois, about 200 miles south of Peoria, said Illinois Emergency Management Agency spokeswoman Patti Thompson. The agency estimated that hundreds of homes were damaged and at least 70 leveled across the state.
Washington County coroner Mark Styninger said the two people who died there were elderly siblings. The 80-year-old man and his 78-year-old sister suffered massive trauma when their home was demolished in the storm, Styninger said.
Two people were killed in Massac County, Illinois, on the Kentucky border where a twister devastated several neighborhoods, emergency officials said.
"It wiped out homes, mobile homes," said Charles Taylor, deputy director of the Emergency Services and Disaster Agency in Massac County. "It downed trees, power lines. We have gas leaks, numerous injuries whether they were in mobile homes, or outdoors, even in the motor vehicles, people have been trapped."
"We have reports of homes being flattened, roofs being torn off," Sara Sparkman, a spokeswoman for the health department of Tazewell County, Illinois, where Washington is located, said in a telephone interview. "We have actual whole neighborhoods being demolished by the storm."
Sparkman said the storm also had caused damage in Pekin, south of Peoria.
Illinois State Police spokeswoman Monique Bond said mobile homes were toppled, roofs torn from homes, and trees uprooted. She said officials believe some people may be trapped in their basements under debris.
The American Red Cross worked with emergency management officials to set up shelters and provide assistance to displaced residents, even as rescue workers searched for more people who might have been caught and trapped in the storm's path.
The Washington tornado came out of a fast-moving storm system that originally headed toward Chicago as it threatened a large swath of the Midwest with dangerous winds, thunderstorms and hail, U.S. weather officials said.
The National Weather Services' Storm Prediction Center said the storm moved dangerously fast, tracking eastward at 60 miles per hour.
This storm system had some similarities to the fast-moving "derecho" storm that knocked out power to more than 4.2 million people and killed 22 in the Midwest and Mid-Atlantic regions in June 2012, according to Bill Bunting, forecast branch chief at the Storm Prediction Center.
(Additional reporting by Deborah Zabarenko, Jonathan Allen and Carey Gillam; Writing by Scott Malone; Editing by Tom Brown and Bill Trott)