Michael Schluter and his parents, Carolyn and Duane Schluter, stand near where the west window in Carolyn’s kitchen used to be in their 99-year-old farmhouse. Carolyn was looking out the window on Nov. 17, 2013, when she saw a tornado approaching. The Schluter family, 18 people in all, sheltered in the basement of the farmhouse, which was destroyed in the storm. The family, from 69-year-old Duane to Michael’s 4-year-old son Will, sustained only minor injuries
Michael Schluter and his parents, Carolyn and Duane Schluter, stand near where the west window in Carolyn’s kitchen used to be in their 99-year-old farmhouse. Carolyn was looking out the window on Nov. 17, 2013, when she saw a tornado approaching. The Schluter family, 18 people in all, sheltered in the basement of the farmhouse, which was destroyed in the storm. The family, from 69-year-old Duane to Michael’s 4-year-old son Will, sustained only minor injuries
PENFIELD, Ill. — For the Schluter family, what the storm left always will be greater than what it took.

Eighteen people sheltering in the basement of a 99-year-old farmhouse.

Duane, at 69, the oldest, was born and raised in the house. His wife, Carolyn. Their three sons with daughters-in-law and grandchildren.

The youngest grandchild, 4-year-old Will, being sheltered by his father, Michael, along with Michael and wife Summer’s other son, Evan, 9, and daughter, Natalie, 11.

Another grandson had brought a new girlfriend to meet the family for this Thanksgiving dinner.

Eighteen people in the basement.

“I got down there and I made it about two steps and I started feeling stuff hit my neck,” Michael said.

Michael’s brother just made it down to the basement when the house was lifted off the foundation.

“I don’t know about a freight train, but it sounded like bulldozers running over two by fours. Since it was an old farmhouse, all the two-by-fours ran up and the floor joists were fastened to it so when the house went, it just took the whole floor and everything,” Michael said. “It was a bare basement. There was nothing left.”

“With debris blowing in on us,” his mother said. “One of the grandsons said ‘cover your head’ and there was some siding laying there, so I grabbed that and pulled it over me.”

Gone In An Instant

In an instant, the farmhouse lifted up, sucked into the vortex of 140 mph winds. It didn’t go far.

The massive tornado pulled the house up and turned it over, depositing it and its contents just feet from where it had stood.

“When you’re thinking about that, you think the house is gone, but everything is all right. Then you come up and everything is gone,” Michael said.

The 18 people in the basement? All alive and with relatively minor injuries. Carolyn suffered a cut on her hand.

A grandson had some scrapes to his face. Another had bruises on his back from where he was struck with debris.

The family emerged with nothing but sky above them — and around them. The storm also took a barn, a shed and most of a corncrib.

“I looked and saw the shed and the barn and the crib and everything was gone and I saw the neighbor’s place. I didn’t turn. I didn’t even want to turn and look over here, but then Summer said, ‘Is our house there?’ So I turned and I saw that our house was OK,” Michael said.

The neighbor’s two-story house was gone.

The family’s vehicles had been pulled into the machine shed to protect them. The only intact vehicle was a sprayer that was damaged, but not destroyed.

Michael jumped into it and took off across the small field that separates his house from his parents. His house was unscathed.

The storm brought down the ceiling of his garage and damaged the door. He cut the door apart to get his truck out and went back and brought the family to his house.

Michael and one of his brothers left to go check on the neighbors. Cell phone service was out.

Duane Schluter was raised and lived for 63 years in that farmhouse.

The trip to the farm the next morning was difficult for Michael as he saw what was left — and what wasn’t.

“It was hard. Even coming down from that mile over, you could see the crib and the house, but there was nothing here,” he said.

Help Arrives

What was at the farmstead was help. Friends, neighbors, relatives all helped in the days that followed to sort through the remains of the house and salvage what they could.

“One of the nephews asked me is there anything you really want to keep and our 50th wedding anniversary is going to be in October, so I said I would really like our wedding album. He was on a mission to find it, and he came to me with it. It was in perfect shape,” Carolyn said.

Their church, St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Gifford, sustained them, as well as the entire community of Gifford. The church became a gathering place where rest and a hot meal could be found as the community cleaned up from the storm.

The Gifford tornado was capricious in its choice of what it took and what it left.

Less than a quarter of a mile from where his parents’ house was demolished, Michael and Summer’s home emerged unscathed — even down to a small brick pool house next to their in-ground pool.

“It snapped every blade off a ceiling fan in the pool house and took out all of the pool fence except for one section,” Michael said.

The storm damaged, but didn’t destroy the pool cover.

The rebuilding has started. The neighbor whose home was leveled has his new home framed.

The foundation has been poured for Duane and Carolyn’s new house. Michael, who does carpentry work along with his farming and his seed business, is building the house. The new, single-story house will sit over part of the foundation of the old house.

Duane and Carolyn had a few items on the “wish list” for their new place.

“We wanted a basement,” Duane said.

For Carolyn, a west window in the kitchen was a must. It was the west window in the old kitchen that she was looking out when she saw the saw the rolling cloud approach.

The family counts its blessings.

They also are thankful for the timing of the storm, which hit around 1 p.m.

“Half an hour before that or 15 minutes, there would have been people everywhere in the house, kids upstairs playing. We wouldn’t have all been in one place,” Duane said.

They are thankful for the many people who showed up to help, from students in local FFA chapters, their church family and others who walked the fields in the days that followed to the people who provided lunch every day from their home base at Michael and Summer’s house.

“That was amazing to me, to all of us,” Carolyn said.

The Thanksgiving dinner went on — held on Nov. 24 at Michael and Summer’s house.

‘Just Some Wind’

Up the road and a few minutes before the Schluters were getting ready to gather around the table, Bev Ehler was taking advantage of the unusually warm day to clean her fish pond.

“It was probably the nicest day we’d had. It was a beautiful day, warm and the sun was out,” she said.

Ehler had long ago put away her patio and pool furniture and closed her pool for the season. But a few chores remained.

“When I was at the fish pond, cleaning out the skimmer, I heard a train,” she said.

That wasn’t unusual. She sometimes can hear the trains in nearby Thomasboro.

“I didn’t realize what was happening. I thought we were just having some wind,” she said.

As the wind picked up, she stood to go into the sunroom.

“I came in this backdoor, and the door gave me problems opening it,” she said.

She got into the house, and as she walked into her living room, Ehler realized something was very different — and very wrong.

“I walked into the main part of the house, and you could feel the walls go in and out — I thought then that this was a little bit more than just a little wind,” she said.

Ehler did notice that her poodle, Bella, was nervous.

“She was pacing and just wild. I told her to calm down, it’s going to be OK, it’s just some wind,” Ehler said.

By the time Ehler got to where she could see out, the storm was past her farmstead and heading toward Gifford, Penfield, the Schluter farmstead and the homes and farms of Ehler’s neighbors.

Ehler first called her neighbors to see if they were OK — they were. The next worry was the fuel tanks.

“I walked outside and saw my fuel tanks flipped upside down. My bin was flipped upside down and all of those big bins, the Quonset shed was gone, the other shed was demolished. My trailers were flipped over,” she said.

Ehler farms with hired help on the Centennial Farm that has been in her late husband Duane Ehler’s family for more than a century. Duane died in 2009, and Bev continues to operate their farm and trucking business.

“I was concerned that we had to get the fuel pumped out of the tanks. I had live wires sparking and I had fuel coming out and I didn’t want an explosion,” she said.

As with the Schluters, what the storm took and what it left is puzzling.

“There was a little bench over against the shed, a brown bench, it’s the lightest bench on earth. It never bothered it,” Ehler said.

In a line across the field, she cites neighbors who had their entire farmsteads demolished.

“As it kept going further out, it started just wiping places out,” she said.

As she gets ready for spring and summer, Ehler still finds places where the tornado did damage.

“Part of the deck has been pulled up, so we’ll have to fix that next. It’s some more to add to everything else,” she said.

“We’re still in major recovery here,” she said.

Damage Assessment

The language from the National Weather Service Weather Forecast Office for Central Illinois is simple, but tells the official tale of the Gifford tornado.

The tornado was rated EF-3 on the Enhanced Fujita Scale with top winds of 140 mph.

It touched down at 12:45 p.m. Nov. 17, 2013, two miles east of Thomasboro in Champaign County.

In Gifford, some 30 homes were destroyed, 40 suffered major damage and more than 100 had minor damage. According to the weather service office in Lincoln, the tornado was a half-mile wide when it entered Gifford.

The service said six people were injured in Champaign County, and the damage estimate is $60 million.

The tornado lifted at 1:15 p.m., some 3.6 miles southwest of Wellington in Iroquois County.

The tornado’s path was 29.7 miles long and a half-mile wide. There were no fatalities and six recorded injuries.

Tornadoes struck throughout the state that day. Eight people were killed in Illinois, and close to 200 people were injured as far north as Coal City and Mazon to Brookport and New Minden in the south and Washington near Peoria. More than 1,100 homes were damaged or destroyed in Washington alone.

As for the Schluter family and Ehler, they are looking forward — but keeping an eye on the skies when the weather turns threatening.

“It happened. There’s nothing you can do about it. You can’t go back and dwell on it. All you can do is go forward,” Ehler said.

“I think overall everyone is doing all right. I think our family is doing OK,” Michael Schluter said.

And while they sympathize with those who lost loved ones and friends, Schluter and his family only need look across the fields at all the new construction to know how lucky they all were on the day when the family gathered to give thanks.

“Like our pastor said, it’s was a miracle that we didn’t have any funerals,” Duane Schluter said.