HARRISBURG, Ill. — Jeff Rann had ample warning that terrible weather was approaching before dawn. A frantic call to his wife from his mother-in-law alerted them to reports that a tornado was barreling down, and Rann heard the deafening wail of storm sirens.
Rann was among those who survived the weather's passing assault Wednesday, his home untouched. Yet just two blocks away in the southern Illinois town of Harrisburg, population 9,000, Rann's parents were not as fortunate.
Rann raced through the darkness in his pickup truck to his parents' duplex but saw instantly there was nothing left, natural gas whistling eerily as it spewed from the property's severed meter. In the mud of a debris-strewn field, Rann found the body of his dad, 65-year-old Randy Rann, and his mother, 62-year-old Donna Rann.
"She just said, 'It hurts. It hurts,'" Rann said of his mother, who had been looking forward to early retirement next month but who died a short time later at a hospital.
Caught in the relatively uncommon night-time twister, the Ranns were among six people killed when blocks of homes in Harrisburg were flattened by overnight storms that raked the nation's midsection, killing at least 12 people in three states.
In southern Missouri, one person was killed in a Buffalo trailer park while two more fatalities were reported in the Cassville and Puxico areas. A tornado hopscotched through the main thoroughfare of Missouri country music mecca Branson, damaging some of the city's famous theaters just days before the start of the town's crucial tourist season.
Three people were reported killed in eastern Tennessee — two in Cumberland County and another in DeKalb County.
And in Kansas, a man whose Harveyville home collapsed on him after an EF2 tornado packing wind speeds of 120 to 130 mph demolished much of the tiny community was taken off life support Wednesday evening.
At least 16 tornados were reported from Nebraska and Kansas across southern Missouri to Illinois and Kentucky, according to the Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla., an arm of the National Weather Service.
In Harrisburg, which has a rich coal-mining history, Mayor Eric Gregg called the tornado strike "heartbreaking." The National Weather Service preliminarily listed the tornado as an EF4, the second-highest rating given to twisters based on damage. Scientists said the tornado was 200 yards wide with winds up to 170 mph.
Adding to the danger, it hit as many slept — a timing research meteorologist Harold Brooks called unusual but "not completely uncommon."
Brooks, with the NOAA National Severe Storms Laboratory in Norman, Okla., said perhaps 10 percent of tornadoes happen between midnight and 6 a.m., a time when the danger level rises because the storms are harder to spot and it's harder to get the word out.
"If you're asleep, you're less likely going to hear anything, any warning message on the danger," Brooks said.
That didn't appear to be the case in Harrisburg, where Gregg later Wednesday expressed gratitude for the keen eye of local weather spotters he credited with ultimately saving lives.
At Harrisburg Medical Center, staffers were alerted to the tornado's approach by the sheriff's department some 20 minutes before the severe weather finally threw its punch, the center's CEO Vince Ashley said.
"We get these calls periodically, and often it's a false alarm," Ashley said. "But we get them often enough that everyone knows what to do."
Nurses hustled the patients into the hallways and away from their room's windows, closing the doors behind them, and were fighting to close the last of the heavy, steel fire doors at the end of the hallway when the tornado came, Ashley said. Seconds later, he said, windows started shattering, walls shook and ceiling tiles rattled.
The fierce winds blew some walls off some rooms, leaving disheveled beds and misplaced furniture but miraculously no injuries. Hours later, Ashley said some of the destroyed portions of the hospital will have to be razed and rebuilt.
Nearby, across the road from Randy and Donna Rann, Amanda Patrick was rousted by the sirens about five minutes before all hell broke loose. She called Donna Rann — her co-worker at the U.S. Forest Service — to alert them but got no answer, then thrust herself into a bathtub as the twister she described as sounding "like a bulldozer and Hoover vacuum at the same time" ripped through.
"Not trying to be holy, I got on my knees and said, 'God, watch over me,'" she said.
The winds shifted the tub as the walls buckled above her. In a gray T-shirt and pink striped pajama pants, she crawled shoeless out into the rain and muck.
She called out for the Ranns but heard nothing back.
Hours later, tears streamed down Patrick's face as she grieved for the late couple.
"A couple weeks ago, there was a bad storm and I looked out the window to check on them," she said, sobbing. "Donna texted me and said, 'I saw you in the window.' She was checking on me. That's the way we were, always just looking out for each other."
This time, she said, "they didn't have a chance."
Ryan Jewell, a meteorologist with the Storm Prediction Center, said the next system is forecast to take a similar path as Wednesday's storms and has the potential for even more damage.
On Friday, he said, both the Midwest and South will be "right in the bull's eye."