EAST PEORIA — Chuck Collins watches severe weather systems evolve all the time — on radar, as a meteorologist who has delivered critical tornado warnings to thousands of households tuned to WEEK-TV Channel 25 news broadcasts and emergency alerts.
In that respect, the churning mass that birthed massive twisters on an unseasonably warm Sunday in November five years ago did not behave in an unexpected fashion, even if experiences of it became unforgettable.
"It was a well-forecast event — we saw severe weather coming a few days out. We knew the time frame would be between 10 a.m. and 1 p.m., and we were prepared," Collins said. "For tornado warnings, we're wall-to-wall coverage. We stay on continuously in our coverage area until the last tornado warning is over."
The station interrupted regular programming with Collins and Sandy Gallant on screen providing the first of several tornado warnings issued that day, with rotation approaching Pekin. Residents had only about five minutes of notice before the tornado touched down at 10:52 a.m., the first tornado of a storm system that would eventually spawn more than two-dozen twisters.
That timing was partly responsible for the short notice of the warning in Pekin, Collins said. Storms often produce tornadoes west of the region and move eastward, giving forecasters more time to issue warnings to cities in the probable path.
"It's one of those situations you don't see very often where an outbreak started here," Collins said.
A few minutes later, the second tornado — the one that would obliterate Washington — touched down. And for someone such as Collins who watches the weather all the time, this event arrived with an additional dimension: sound.
"It's a sound that if you hear it, you know what it is. ... It started right out here," Collins said, motioning from inside the WEEK studio, on the outskirts of East Peoria, to the parking lot outside. "It touched down on Springfield Road right in front of the station. That was the beginning of the Washington tornado right here."
The television personalities delivering the weather warnings suddenly had to heed their own advice.
"When we heard the proverbial freight train sound, we knew to take cover, and we had to scramble," Collins said. "I've never been that close to one, especially on the air."
The tornado had not yet achieved its peak strength, though it still caused damage to structures around the station with sustained wind speeds of 120 miles per hour. Collins said the twister doubled in intensity around Farmdale Park and blasted Washington with 190-mile-per-hour wind.
Collins, Gallant and others took shelter in hallways and bathrooms with all internal walls and no windows before returning to the air to continue trumpeting the warnings. The system bore down on Washington, but narrowly missed other populated areas such as Metamora.
Ever since then, tornado drills at the station have taken on a new sense of urgency, and there's an overall sense of enhanced awareness, Collins said. Plans for a recent remodeling paid special attention to signs and emergency routes to designated storm shelter areas.
As a meteorologist, Collins has seen one other side of the storm that few people outside the profession will know, an element that further qualifies an already unforgettable day.
"The models suggest dozens of fatalities in a situation like that, hitting a populated area like that," Collins said. "It's miraculous that there were not dozens of fatalities."
Matt Buedel can be reached at 686-3154 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @JournoBuedel.