Surviving & Serving

This story was first published in the Herald News of Joliet, IL. These are Village President Mary Latta’s own words as to what happened on August 28 1990, the day a tornado ripped through my hometown of Plainfield, Illinois. May her words inspire you do your best whatever the circumstances are. “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord.” Colossians 3:23

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This is a picture of the memorial. You can see my mom’s (Mary Latta’s) reflection in the picture.

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In her own words…

As I reflect upon the last ten years and events that have change my life, I wonder if any of the events are of interest to others but, I know that it is time for me to remember and accept the things that I did that were helpful and also accept those decisions I made that may not have been the best.
August 28, 1990 was a hot, sultry day. The air was so still and heavy that it was difficult to breathe. The sky was clear and blue with an unrelenting sun shining down upon the world. I spent the day at a teacher in-service at St. Mary’s School in Plainfield. Because of the incredible heat and humidity we spent most of the day in one of the mobile classrooms that were air-conditioned.
By 2 p.m. the heat caused the principal, Sister Mary, to allow the teachers to leave early to go home or do some last minute work in classrooms. These classrooms would welcome excited students the following day. The classrooms were decorated, floors were shining, and the expectations of the children and teachers were high. My deepest dreams and worst nightmares could never have created the scene that would rise before me and surround my life for the next two years.
At about 2:45 p.m. I was covering brand new English textbooks with brown paper bags. The new books were beautiful and I was enjoying the smell of the clean and pristine pages. I was thinking of how the children would enjoy being the first person to use each of the books. My third grade classroom was almost ready for the students and this was the last of the “getting ready” tasks that I needed to complete.
I was somewhat irritated feeling the pressure to complete the task because I was waiting for the village administrator to pick me up and drive to the city of Joliet. I had been Village President of Plainfield since 1985 and had managed to merge the job of an educator with the leadership needs of a growing community with ease in addition to being a parent of four daughters. Ironically, the meeting with the attorney probably saved my life and this particular day would provide a challenge to maintain the merging of three dissimilar jobs.
It started to rain by 3 p.m. At that time, my administrator arrived to pick me up. The rain suddenly became so heavy and thick that we were unable to leave the school parking lot. Mark, the administrator, managed to get the car back near the school so we could make a mad dash for the doors. Mark, Penny, a church employee, Sister Mary and I found ourselves standing together inside the double doors at the front of the school.
We stood chatting and looking across the vast parking lot of the church towards Route 59. It was eerie and strange when the heavy rain stopped and quarter-sized hail started to fall. I ran outside to pick up a few pieces and then returned to the building. The wind had calmed down and the hail was falling in a straight line from the sky to the ground.
About 3:30 p.m. the wind began to pick up and the sky cleared to the bright blue it had been earlier in the day. As we looked to the west, I noticed massive clouds rolling over the church as if they were waves on a beach moving toward the shore. The clouds were puffy and white buy had unusual items within them. I peered more closely and noticed that over the church and its tall steeple were clouds filled with 2x4s, 4x8s, sheets of wood and other rubble. As the clouds moved closer to where we stood, they became darker and thicker with trash.
3:30 p.m. arrived and so did the first wave of the tornado that would continue for many more miles. “It’s a tornado,” I screamed. We raced down the hall to an area that should have provided more shelter than the double glass doors. Sister Mary ran into her office to warn the other people in the building. The last words I heard her say were, “It’s a tornado, take cover.” I hear the crackle of the speaker system, or could it have been the beginning of the crackling of the building and windows. I just do not know! I landed on top of our school secretary, Vicki, in a corner next to a set of new fire doors. My administrator, Mark, was lying on the floor next to me clutching my right arm. I am not sure where Penny sought cover before the tornado hit.
While lying on top of Vicki and holding on to her with a vise-like grip, I heard the cracking of glass and the sound of wind. (I do not recall hearing a sound like a freight train, though years later, this common sound of tornado would make my body shake and heart palpitate in a rapid manner. I recall hearing the horrendous wind, felt the pounding of the rain, and the bite of the sand blasting against my body. The sand felt as if I was in a desert being sandblasted from all sides. I assume that as my heart began to pound and ears began to pop that I blacked out for a period of time.
At some point, I felt Mark let go of my arm and blow away. Later, he stated that he felt like Superman. Due to the strength of the wind and its howling noise, I thought that the world had ended and that I might as well let go of the person underneath me. But, I felt pressure on my arm and I distinctly remember saying to myself, “If the person I am holding on to wants to stay, I will continue to try to hold on.”
The next thing I remembered was hearing the wind die down and the soft sound of rain. I struggled to my feet and said, “Vickie, are you alive?” Of course, I remember saying it in a calm voice, but Vickie said she remembered hearing me scream the question. Vickie stood up and began to search for Sister Mary.
After looking around in a 360 degree circle in slow motion and realizing that the school and most of the structures within my viewing area were smashed, crumpled and flat, I knew that, as a survivor of whatever just happened, I needed to help locate anyone who might be alive and needed help. I could only hope that if my family was injured, that someone would be there to assist them.
Sister Mary had disappeared along with her office and may not have been found till the next day. I found Penny on a sidewalk surrounded by rubble. She was unable to move, but kept saying when asked if she was okay, “I’m fine, just don’t move me.” Mark was located under the glass doors we had been standing near minutes before with a window air conditioner unit on top of him. I manage to remove the air conditioner unit, but was unable to help him get from under the doors. Our eighth grade teacher was found wrapped in a carpet with severe bleeding. Because the paper towels, which had been stashed in lockers, were wet and destroyed, I pulled off my slip and had another teacher apply pressure to stop the bleeding. This decision and emergency first aid may have saved her life, but at the same time, the sand imbedded in my slip caused other problems.
I kept moving from one injured person to another to be sure that they were being cared for as well as possible and make sure that the most severely injured had someone with them at all times. It seemed a lifetime later that I heard the sound of an ambulance moving up Route 59 from the south.
Because of the wonderful sound of the ambulance siren, which to me meant that people with lifesaving experience were on their way, I found myself running toward Route 59. As I was racing across the parking lot in my bare feet, I saw an injured man sitting in the parking lot of the church. I stopped, looked at him and made the decision not to talk or render first aid, but to continue on my quest to grab that ambulance, I believed that getting the trained ambulance people to come for the welfare of all the injured was more important.
Traffic was totally stopped in the northbound lane and there was no traffic going south. The sound of the ambulance was getting closer and closer. Suddenly the ambulance was in front of me in the southbound lane traveling north. Like an apparition, I appeared in front of it and would not let it pass. The driver had a choice, stop or run me down. Fortunately, he chose to stop. “We need help at the school,” I yelled. The driver stated that he needed to go to the fire station. “No, you must turn here, I’ve got injure people,” I yelled. He made the turn; I ran back to the school to ensure that the injured people I was aware of would be getting professional help.
Once I believed that I had done all I could at the school site, I started off again toward Route 59 determined to go home to check on my family, take a shower because I was covered with dirt and blood, and then return to town to declare an emergency.
As I crossed Route 59 with tattered clothes, shoeless, and full of holes from the blasting sand along with some gashes from some unknown items, I could see that the high school, school administration building, and surrounding neighborhood were destroyed. I found a police car and commandeered it to be taken home. The three-mile ride home was one of the most terrifying experiences of my life. With tunnel vision, I could only focus on each building we passed and acknowledge in my mind if they stood or were destroyed. As we travel up my street, I felt my head dart from side to side looking at the buildings. When the squad pulled in my driveway, my family ran out of a standing house and I focused on counting noses. When I reached the magical number of five, which meant one nose each for my husband and four daughters, I breathed a sigh of relief.
My daughters helped me shower and rendered any needed first aid. I returned to the high school area and again grabbed a vehicle. This time, as I traveled up north on Route 59, I rode in a tow truck with one of my trustees hanging off the side. With a local tow truck driver and my trustee within hearing distance, I declared a state of emergency, the very first step needed to begin cleanup.
The sky was clear and blue, the wind was gone, homes and businesses were destroyed, and my community and I were about to embark on a journey that would take years to complete. I can never say thank you enough to the people of my community for the spirit that carried us throughout the journey and to the people that came to help. So again, ten years later, thank you to all the people who cared and helped our community from the bottom of my heart. “Thank you.”

7 thoughts on “Surviving & Serving”

  1. I never asked your mom about what happened that day. I am in shock of what she and others went through. Thank you for sharing.

    1. Sue,
      You are SO right about that! I will never forget seeing a dumpster wrapped around the very top of the branches of a tree.

  2. Thank you for sharing this! It gives me a clue to another dimension of your mother. Wow! What a story and what a life experience!

  3. Tena, I knew your mom was Village President of Plainfield when the Plainfield Tornado struck but I had no idea she was literally IN the tornado. Her articulate description of the terrifying events of that day brought tears to my eyes. What a traumatic experience to go through, and while herself, being injured and awestruck by the devastation, to realize that a whole village of people are looking to her for leadership. From the beginning of the storm she exhibited the qualities of a leader and God obviously gave her the strength to carry out her responsibilities with care and compassion. A true story of “love in action.”

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