Bill Teichmiller quickly realized something was wrong that June evening 30 years ago when he saw pieces of tin flying outside his Newton home.
“I thought that doesn’t belong here. I got off the couch and looked outside and only saw black. I didn’t see any tornado. I didn’t hear it. It was just all black outside,” Teichmiller recalled of that nightmarish evening 30 years ago on the west edge of Newton.
Teichmiller’s Imperial Acres home was one of the first hit in Newton by the tornado on June 2, 1990. The twister was one of 65 tornadoes that raged through Illinois, Indiana and Ohio on that Saturday and into Sunday, demolishing hundreds of homes, mobile homes, businesses and other structures, while injuring dozens, but fortunately not many deaths.
Like many Newton residents, Teichmiller had only moments to seek safety; fortunately, his wife, Lisa, and 6-week-old son, Brock, were visiting relatives, miles away in Ingraham. With only few seconds to act Teichmiller made the right decision, he rushed to the bathroom and hunkered down just as the tornado crashed into his house.
“It was like an explosion. I could hear wood and glass shattering. In a few seconds it was over. I then looked up and all I could see was sky. The roof was gone. I was thinking ‘Wow!’”
He got out of the tub and walked outside and realized only one exterior wall was still standing. He searched for some tennis shoes in a demolished closet because glass, wood shards and insulation were everywhere. He saw neighbors’ homes damaged as well. Across the yard, he heard neighbor kids crying, including Clarence Michl’s daughter who had one of her dresses rip into a door like a power saw, one of several oddities from the powerful tornado winds.
It was after 6 p.m. and rain started to fall.
Minutes earlier, Newton Police Chief Mike Swick was home on the east side of Newton when his young son, Jason, was in the yard and said to his mother, ‘That’s a funny looking cloud.’”
“She looked that way and yelled at me, ‘Oh My God! It’s a tornado!’” Swick said.
In a minute or so, the Swicks were driving west to seek shelter. They found it in the Jasper County Jail not far from the Courthouse Square. Swick remembers there was something odd about that evening that seemed out of place.
“The thing I remember is it got extremely quiet before the tornado. The atmosphere felt really close. You didn’t hear any birds chirping or anything,” recalled Swick, who quickly went to work that Saturday after making sure his family was safe.
The tornado continued its relentless path in west Newton. It sent cars crashing into or flipping over the Ranch Motel along Illinois Route 33, leaving the structure a total ruin. A woman’s leg was pinned under one car and Wade Community Fire Protection District firefighters worked to extricate her. She would later lose her leg. There were a few other injuries from the tornado, but no deaths in Jasper County.
A duplex apartment structure was blown away and Joe Bigard and his young son hung on to a washing machine as the tornado blew away the roof and some walls. Nearby houses and sheds were ripped apart, blowing pieces of metal and shards of insulation clinging to trees. One tall tree near the motel still stood, but it was so denuded that it looked like a fantastical tree from a Dr. Seuss book. It stood for several years before it was finally cut down.
A veterinarian clinic was destroyed as well. Then the twister tore into the James Addition, across the highway from Newton High School. Many houses were damaged by the fury of the tornado. There was a near Wizard of Oz moment when the two-story home of Bob and Carol Schafer was lifted off its foundation and twisted around, then dropped back down. A detached garage was smashed and went down a hill, a total loss.
Fortunately, the Schafers were not home to experience their two-story home going airborne. They had gone on vacation the day before to St. Augustine, Florida. Bob was also co-owner of the veterinarian clinic as well. They learned about the tornado through a phone call from a relative; the couple flew back to Illinois.
Years later, Bob Schafer recalled he had told an interviewer he had found the safest place to be when a tornado hit. “I said the best way to survive a tornado is to be in Florida at the time.”
When he examined the house, he realized he and his wife might have been seriously injured or killed if they had been at home on June 2. For example, the bathroom would not have been a safe haven at all because the stool had exploded and sent pieces flying around like shrapnel.
Raymond Reynolds and his family had traveled to St. Louis that fateful Saturday. When they came to Newton along Route 33, they encountered a law enforcement roadblock at the Bogota Road. That’s when Raymond, a volunteer firefighter and city electrical department employee, first learned of the disaster.
“I finally got home and changed my clothes and went to work. I didn’t get a break until Monday,” said Reynolds, who helped with many duties including assistance on utility repairs.
Newton gained a lot of helping hands not long after the tornado passed to the northeast, causing further damage in the countryside, and even damaging boats at Sam Parr State Park Lake. Emergency vehicles and crews from surrounding counties rushed to the town to offer assistance and then came a small army of volunteers as well, joining Newton residents with cleanup or helping those left homeless. Central Illinois Public Service crews, today’s Ameren Illinois, and Norris Electric Cooperative worked to restore power. There were many other companies offering help as well.
The cleanup and recovery remain a source of pride in Newton.
“I know neighbors came in and helped people with their houses destroyed and they helped them gather belongings, too,” Reynolds said. “We did have a lot of help. They sat up a staging area for volunteers at the high school. The command center for emergency services was at Newton City Hall.”
Schafer said there was an overflow of help, but a few volunteers go overzealous when it came to cutting down damaged trees.
“We had to stop some because they were cutting trees that weren’t that damaged. But having all that help was good for the town,” Schafer said.
Teichmiller recalled how church members and so many residents helped his family that weekend and beyond. “They just reached out to us in so many ways,” he said. “I grew up in the Chicago suburbs, so I wasn’t used to all that hospitality. What happened after the tornado convinced me on what small towns could do.”
Then Teichmiller was approached by Sheriff Phil Benefiel to do something for his adopted community. He was asked to meet with Gov. Jim Thompson when he came to look over the damage and confirm what help was needed for disaster recovery.
“I was still in shock. I didn’t want to talk or meet with anybody,” Teichmiller said. “I think they wanted me because I had a six-week-old son. I knew Phil so I agreed to do it that Monday.”
When Thompson came to Newton on June 4, it was not just a photo-op moment in Swick’s opinion.
“He talked with people and asked how the state could help. He was genuine,” said Swick, who accompanied the Governor and his staff during their tour of some devastated areas.
“I think he was there because he cared,” Teichmiller said. He also learned that Thompson lived up to his nickname of “Big Jim” with his tall frame and large hands.
Today, the areas where the tornado hit have been transformed with new commercial development and residences. Newton did not let a disaster stop progress. Now instead of a small motel, a larger motel is in business on the westside.
Swick is still police chief of Newton and will retire soon. Reynolds still works for the electric department. Bob Schafer is glad a veterinarian clinic is still in business at the site where he had another rebuilt.
And the Teichmillers live in Dieterich, where they moved soon after the 1990 tornado. They also are new grandparents. The new addition to the family is Collins Grace, daughter of Brock, who was away from his crib bed in Newton that fateful evening 30 years ago. A bed that was pelted with broken glass and pieces of wood by the twister.
As they say, life goes on.