By Mary Wisniewski
WASHINGTON, Illinois (Reuters) - When a powerful tornado bore down on the small city of Washington, Illinois, on Sunday, Ryan Bowers took his wife's advice and sheltered in the basement with their 2-1/2-month-old daughter and their dogs.
Winds of up to 200 miles per hour leveled their home, along with a large swath of the city of 15,000 people east of Peoria, but the Bowers survived, as did almost all of their neighbors.
The twister, part of a fast-moving storm that hammered much of the Midwest, killed eight people in Illinois and Michigan, but many survived thanks to quick reactions like Bowers's and because their homes had basements to flee to.
"I have to believe that 90 percent of those people who survived were probably in their basement, taking cover, or at church," said Washington Mayor Gary Manier, who noted that he was among the many town residents who were in church when they heard warning sirens.
"We thank God that our community listened and took heed," Manier said, standing in a destroyed section of Washington where bits of American flags and insulation from destroyed houses clung to trees that had been stripped of their branches and remaining leaves by the storm.
Bowers, 33, said he normally disregarded tornado warnings but headed to his basement after seeing the debris cloud barreling toward his house.
"I ran back inside, ran in the basement, not 15 seconds later our basement windows were sucked in and everything was twirling about," said Bowers. "Everything was white and all I could hear was snapping ... Things were dropping on top of me and splitting in two."
He and his wife Andrea, 32, briefly returned on Monday to retrieve a family Bible and a pink baby rattle that was their daughter Sydney's favorite toy.
UP TO 500 HOMES DAMAGED
Manier estimated that 250 to 500 homes had been damaged by the tornado, rated as the second-most powerful magnitude of twister, which hit the city east of Peoria with winds of 166 to 200 miles per hour (267-322 km per hour).
In the destroyed area, where buildings were reduced to rubble and cars turned upside down, authorities barred vehicle traffic out of concern that people could be injured while attempting to retrieve their possessions.
But people came anyway, on bicycles and on foot, to sort through their belongings and help their neighbors.
"It's crazy, you walk through a town you've lived in your whole life and you don't even know where you're at," said Tanner Smith, a 17-year-old wide receiver who was among about 30 members of the Washington Community High School football team, the Panthers, who came to help with relief efforts.
Amid the rubble, Chris Morrissey, 43, was amazed to find her stepmother's china dolls and glass paperweights intact - though the house itself was destroyed. Her father and stepmother had been away in Florida, but were returning to see the damage.
"They're alive. You can't ask for better than that," Morrissey said.
At least eight people were killed in the storm across two states. Of the six people killed in Illinois, authorities said one died in the city of Washington, in Tazewell County, and about 120 others were injured in the town.
Elsewhere in the state, an 80-year-old man and his 78-year-old sister were killed in Washington County, about 200 miles south of Peoria, County Coroner Mark Styninger said. Three more people died when a tornado devastated several neighborhoods in Massac County on the Kentucky border, emergency officials said.
In central Michigan, rescue workers found the body of a 59-year-old man entangled in downed power lines on Sunday night. The man went outside to investigate a noise, according to Shiawassee County Sheriff's Department Lieutenant David Kirk.
A 21-year-old man was killed on Sunday night when a tree fell on his car in the central Michigan town of Leslie, said Jackson County Sheriff Steven Rand.
The storm also damaged homes and buildings in Indiana and Kentucky, though no fatalities were reported in those states.
Over 675,000 homes and businesses in the U.S. Midwest and in the province of Ontario, Canada, were still without power on Monday afternoon following the storm, according to local power companies.
BASEMENT SAFE HAVENS
The unusual late-season storms moved dangerously fast, tracking east at 60 miles per hour, with the bulk of the damage spanning about five hours, said spokeswoman Patti Thompson of the Illinois Emergency Management Agency.
Survivors said they rode out the storm in their basements, which are common in homes in the affected area, a fact that may have helped hold down the death toll, officials said. In May, a monster, top-category tornado killed 24 people in Moore, Oklahoma, a part of the United States where basements are less common.
Nancy Rampy, 62, said she fled to her basement when she heard the storm sirens blaring on Sunday.
"I heard what sounded like 12 trains just roaring down the tracks, and it just wouldn't stop. It just kept coming and coming," Rampy said. "I ran to the basement, sat in the basement with my flashlight in the dark and just prayed, 'Let it be over soon.'"
Rampy's house was spared.
(Additional reporting by Brendan O'Brien in Milwaukee, Carey Gillam in Kansas City and Scott DiSavino in New York; Writing by Scott Malone; Editing by Lisa Von Ahn, Maureen Bavdek, Jim Marshall and Bob Burgdorfer)