Thirty years ago, Newton was still recovering from a powerful tornado that ripped through Jasper County.
Jasper County residents recently shared perspectives on June 2, 1990, from opposite ends of the tornado’s run. Fred Miller witnessed the formation of the tornado that day by the Newton Power Station and Gary and Annette Stanciu came home that night to find their home destroyed by the twister near Sam Parr State Park.
Miller was working overtime at the Power Station along with Glen Clap on June 2. They were on top one of the concrete lime silos, used to store lime and soda ash for the plant’s scrubber unit, when they saw something happening west toward the coal pile.
"The sky was getting really dark and we went outside the housing to get a better look," Miller recalled. "There we saw a funnel cloud had touched down on the coal pile and was gradually picking up speed, but actually just spinning and not moving any direction. I got on the radio and called our supervisor and said, ‘You need to look at the coal pile.’ His response was ‘You need to look up north.’"
Miller and his co-worker then saw something they will never forget. A much larger funnel cloud was just touching down in a field north of the power plant buildings. The smaller funnel cloud took off and moved quickly to the bigger funnel.
"When the two funnels combined, they really began spinning and took off northeast toward Newton. We later understood that the tornado stayed on the ground all the way into Newton," Miller said.
Miller’s supervisor and another power plant employee drove off in a pickup truck to follow the tornado as it roared toward town. From afar, they witnessed the havoc along the tornado’s path.
"I remember they said that occasionally they could see pieces of metal and other debris carried along by the funnel. They also said that some pieces were quite large," Miller said. Some of that debris would end up in trees or in yards on the west edge of Newton, where the tornado hit, wrecking residences and buildings, including a motel.
Going to top of Unit 2 at the power plant, Fred thought they might see where the tornado was headed. But the accompanying storm blocked their bird’s eye viewpoint.
"Since it was moving away from us, Glen and I went to the top of Unit No. 2 to see if we could see any more. Usually we could see Bogota from up there quite easily. It began raining so hard we could hardly see the edge of the building. However, we didn't get a drop of rain on ourselves. After the funnels headed to town, the weather around the power plant was quite calm. The next day several of us took backhoes and other equipment to Newton to help with cleanup," Miller said.
As the tornado was headed toward Newton, Annette Stanciu was enjoying herself at a co-worker’s wedding celebration at the Free Methodist Church by Newton Central Grade School, now Newton Elementary. Fortunately, the twister’s path did not shift toward the center of Newton. It kept going northeast.
The tornado’s path was fortunate for the town and those at the wedding celebration, but bad luck for Gary and Stanciu and their neighbors near Sam Parr State Park northeast of Newton. They went from relief to shock when they arrived home.
Our trailer was east of Sam Parr State Park," Annette recalled. "The farmer working the nearby field watched the tornado go down the road and he saw water from our pond shoot up in the air, our mobile home was sucked up and wrapped around a tree."
It is doubtful they would have survived if they had been home inside their residence when the tornado hit.
The tornado caused other destruction and chaos along the countryside that day. Neighbors Duane Yager and Esther Kerner lost their homes. Annette’s parents had their horses and cows running toward the nearby highway due to the tornado destroying a barn and knocking down fencing. Marion Ochs, a neighbor, used a rope to catch the panicked horses and he put the stray cattle in his barn.
Ochs was one of many Good Samarians that day in the county. There were many cases of neighbors helping each other. Help was also offered from surrounding counties that weekend through emergency services and many volunteers. The help from outside the county continued through the summer as with cleanup and rebuilding efforts.
Jasper County residents quickly learned they were not alone; the tornado that sliced through their county was part of a major tornado outbreak that weekend in the Midwest, especially in Indiana. In fact, the tornado that struck Newton would go aloft past the Wabash River and caused damage to Hoosier communities.
The destructive scars from the 1990 tornado are mostly gone in Jasper County. Commercial development is impressive today along Illinois Route 33 where the twister hit. Homes along the countryside have been repaired or replaced. But the memories of that fateful day remain.