Tornado survivor narrowly escaped tavern collapse
Destruction in Utica 'very heartbreaking, disturbing'
Tornado survivor Jeremy Thorson tells CNN's Soledad O'Brien his dramatic story.
CNN's Chris Lawrence reports from Utica, Illinois, where a tornado tore up the small town and left eight people dead.
Storms spawning tornadoes touch down in Illinois and Indiana.
Sheriff Tom Templeton of LaSalle County, Illinois, gives an update on the tornado damage.
It's still settling in... If I would have taken 10 more minutes, if I would have sat down and waited out the storm, what could have happened, inevitably what would have happened?
-- Jeremy Thorson, tornado survivor
UTICA, Illinois (CNN) -- Eight people died in the collapse of the Milestone Tavern when a tornado destroyed large parts of the town of Utica, Illinois.
CNN anchor Soledad O'Brien, in New York, interviewed survivor Jeremy Thorson, in Utica, via satellite on Thursday. He left the tavern just before the tornado hit on Tuesday night.
O'BRIEN: Thank you for being with us, Jeremy. I know this is really difficult for you. Obviously, you lost a lot of friends, and your life has really been turned upside down. Let's talk a little bit about how you knew the storm was coming. Was the TV on in the tavern? What was going on?
THORSON: The television was on in the tavern. And as I went downstairs, I noticed that there were people watching the TV. I asked what was going on, and the television screen showed the tornado right above the area where my wife and my house was located.
So at that moment, I decided that I wanted to make sure my wife was OK and that my pets were in the basement. So, I got out of the building as quick as I could, drove through town at a fast rate. On my way home, the tornado was in between me and my route of travel. I was 500 feet, 300 feet, it's hard to tell, but my truck moved around. I got off the road and waited it out.
O'BRIEN: Let me ask you a question. A lot of folks, it seems, came to the tavern because it looked like it was possibly the strongest structure that would be able to survive a tornado. I mean, people came in from outside to take shelter inside the tavern. So, did you have a sixth sense that it wouldn't be safe, or was it all about just getting to your home?
THORSON: It's hard to explain. When I was leaving, I was really drawing a blank. I knew I just wanted to get out of there. I wanted to get as far away from Utica as I could. The building was solid as a rock. It was an all-rock building, and very true, one of the patrons actually said this is going to be one of the strongest buildings in Utica, but I just got out.
As soon as I walked out the front door, I could hear the warning siren coming from the distance of LaSalle. It wasn't yet in Utica, and I left. By the time I got home, I called the Milestone. I just felt I should call, and there was no answer. It was a busy signal.
O'BRIEN: When you finally reached your wife -- and we should mention that she was fine and the two of you were able to get together -- when did you get the news that, in fact, the people inside the tavern, where you had been really just minutes before, did not survive? What was that like?
THORSON: It was very strange. [My wife and I] went out for pizza when we found that she was safe. She actually had to pull over, saw the tornado herself on the way back from work in Ottawa. So, we went out and had some pizza, and over dinner we could hear the waitresses talking about Utica being destroyed, the Milestone... people trapped. And at first, I didn't believe it, the way rumors go. But as soon as I got home, sure enough, on the television that was all over the news.
O'BRIEN: How are you doing today? And how are the folks in Utica doing today? I mean, I can't even imagine how you must feel really having -- I don't think it's an exaggeration to say -- narrowly escaped with your life. Are you all right?
THORSON: It's still settling in. It really is, as far as realizing if I would have taken 10 more minutes, if I would have sat down and waited out the storm, what could have happened, inevitably what would have happened? Coming back into Utica today... that was difficult. That was difficult, seeing the town, driving in with no traffic, very heartbreaking, disturbing.
O'BRIEN: What does it look like?
THORSON: It doesn't look the same. It's gone. I'm looking at a grain bin that used to be on the other side of the canal. I've been around this area for a long time. I've spent a lot of time in Utica. A block that way is where they had their local celebrations, the city, the bands would play, everything. [There were] a lot of people from Chicago [who] appreciated this town. We're right next to a state park. A lot of traffic comes through here that won't be coming through, obviously, for some time.
O'BRIEN: Not just the devastation, of course, but the loss of life -- huge, huge loss for a relatively small town. Do you think the folks are ever going to be able to get over this?
THORSON: Oh, yes, everybody in town is strong. Utica is a strong town. The camaraderie is great. The people here, they'll pull together. They'll fix it. It will be even better some day. Unfortunately, the lives that were lost cannot be replaced, cannot be fixed. It's just a matter of time... and I'm sure everybody in Utica will pull together and take care.
My friends live directly over the canal, and now that I've gained entrance, I'll be able to go and see if they are OK. At this point, nobody knows. You can't call Utica. There's no phone service, or wasn't yesterday.
O'BRIEN: We certainly hope they are fine and everyone else as well. Jeremy Thorson, thanks for talking with us. I can tell you are obviously still very shaken up, so we appreciate it.
THORSON: Thank you.