WASHINGTON — The only signs of destruction in the picture snapped by a Journal Star photographer five years ago are on the faces of the suddenly homeless former residents of the Georgetown Commons Luxury Apartments.
Shellshocked. Hacked off. Weary. Confused. Sad. They huddle in silence clutching empty cardboard boxes and plastic recycling tubs, staring out of the frame toward what had been the tidy apartment complex where most in the crowd lived. Their out-of-picture view is a mess of construction rubble and misery. They look like refugees.
"I remember it was freezing," said Beau-Lea Langley recently, the five-year-old moment still alive in her memory. "We were just standing there waiting for someone to tell us we could go back to our apartment to see what was left of everything we owned. At that point, we had no idea."
A thousand homes were damaged or destroyed by the tornado that struck Pekin, East Peoria and then Washington on Nov. 17, 2013. Five years later, most have been fixed or rebuilt. Insurance companies paid out millions of dollars.
But for the residents of the 15 buildings that made up Georgetown Commons Luxury Apartments complex, the only construction option they had was to rebuild their lives, not their homes. The buildings were bulldozed beginning in May 2014. The property remains empty today surrounded by a chain-link fence.
Kyle Zimmerman was a student at Western Illinois University the morning the tornado struck. His brother, Brandon, lived in Georgetown with his wife and three children. Both Kyle and Brandon and a third brother Jake, are in the Journal Star photograph waiting to be escorted into the damaged apartment buildings. Days earlier, Kyle drove to Washington from Macomb, uncertain of the fate of his brothers.
"My mom called and told me to get home. It was a terrifying drive," Kyle Zimmerman said recently. "I hadn't heard back from my brother and had no idea really what was going on. I had worked myself into a panic fearing the worst."
It was bad, but not the worst. Turns out, his brother's family was fine. Shaken, but fine. Their home was destroyed. For days, Zimmerman and his brothers returned to the roped-off apartment complex waiting for the green light to go in and salvage their stuff. Finally, the day the photo was taken, they were allowed in.
"It was a bit of a struggle really for my brother and his family to get back on their feet," Kyle Zimmerman said. "It was definitely a life-changing event."
Amy Magner is pictured standing behind the Zimmerman brothers. Wearing glasses and a hoodie, only her head and a shoulder are visible in the photo of apartment residents. She would forever remember Nov. 17, 2013, even if a tornado hadn't rendered her home uninhabitable. It was the day after the baby shower for her firstborn child, and she was putting a nursery together for the baby boy who would be born in a little more than a month.
"We were coming back from Peoria (on Sunday) when our phones went off with a tornado alert," Magner said recently. "We were 10 minutes behind (the tornado). We pulled into Georgetown just as people were emerging from their apartments and our mouths dropped to the floor and we didn't quite comprehend what we were seeing. We were like 'What did we just miss?'"
Like Magner, Langley is a disembodied head in the photograph, peeking out in the background between a profile in a stocking cap and a man with a dust mask resting cock-eyed on his chin.
"Actually that day (of the photograph) was a little less stressful than the days leading up to it because we were told we were going to be able to go in (to the apartment) and get some stuff," said Langley, who waited out the storm in her bathtub.
Langley's building was marked with a spray-painted "X," meaning it was unsafe to spend much time in. She and her then-boyfriend, now husband, Justin, were escorted into their apartment by first responders, still on-duty days after the tornado, and given 10 minutes to fill their boxes.
"We were able to walk through the sliding glass doors into the apartment, but the stairs inside the entrance to the building had collapsed," Langley said. "There was water coming in from the ceiling and most everything was wet and there was glass everywhere. We were happy that we had stuff we could collect, but I remember standing in there thinking, 'Wow, this really did happen.'"
The Langleys, who were somehow responsible enough at age 23 to have renter's insurance and a microchip of contact information embedded in their pet cat, Ninja, spent time with her parents then bought a house in Sunnyland, where they still live.
"We got a $3,000 check from our insurance company right away and were able to get started getting back on track," Langley said. "We were luckier than a lot of people."
The group of about 50 apartment dwellers were linked that day by the click of whatever modern technology replaced the shutter in a digital camera. A group of men in brown Carhartt winter coats who came to help a co-worker gather what they could are scattered in the frame. The maintenance manager and his wife stand in the foreground of the photo holding blue "We Recycle" tubs. It's hoodies-up and cinched, gloves on and grim expressions set. There is a glimpse of green grass beyond the curb. The leafless trees in the background are a darker gray than the sky. It looks cold.
"Hundreds of people in the apartment complex were displaced that day," Magner said recently, recalling the day the photograph was taken. "I say all the time to people to don't think it can't happen to them. My home was hit by a tornado, but we lived to tell the story."
Scott Hilyard can be reached at 686-3244 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @scotthilyard on Twitter.