BOTKINBURG — A tornado that touched down in rural Van Buren County damaged dozen structures, destroying five of them and injuring several people, authorities said Thursday.
County Judge Roger Hooper said five structures — including the Botkinburg Foursquare Church and an adjacent home — were total losses. Another 11 were considered heavily damaged and uninhabitable, and 22 had minor damage.
Four people were injured in the tornado, including a truck driver whose tractor-trailer was thrown off the highway near the church on U.S. 65 north of Clinton. Three were treated and released, and the fourth was held overnight with injuries not believed to be life-threatening.
"Not to have any fatalities is amazing considering the storm was about 30 miles in length and at some places a mile wide," Hooper said, standing just outside the leveled sanctuary of the Foursquare Church.
John Robinson, senior coordination meteorologist with the National Weather Service, said there was "no doubt" a tornado caused the damage, but it was too early in an ongoing storm survey to pinpoint how large the twister was.
Ester Bass, the pastor of the church, was home when he received a call alerting him the church had been hit. He arrived to find it heavily damaged — one half completely collapsed and the roof ripped from the other.
"It was just heart-wrenching. We had spent so much time building it and establishing a church here," the 66-year-old Bass said. "Just to see it gone in seconds, you can almost hardly believe it."
Bass said the congregation will build back, though it may take time. He said for now, everyone is thankful the storm didn't roll through later Wednesday night when a service was planned.
"That's the miracle of it all," he said. "If it had been two hours later or an hour-and-a-half later, we'd have all been in there. And we'd have been in this part that's so destroyed."
No one was home in the house next door, either, where youth pastor Rocky Thomas, his wife and two young sons live. The storm ripped the roof from the two-story, wooden structure, demolished a pair of outside buildings and took out the carport, among other damage. Crews were working Thursday to salvage the house, which is believed to be a total loss.
"Three-quarters of the way down here, Mandy called me crying, 'Our house is gone,'" Thomas said, recalling his drive home after learning the tornado had moved through the community. "If someone had been in the house, it would have been tough. We don't know if we would have survived."
Across U.S. 65 and just a block north, family members worked to salvage items from a woman's home that was demolished by the tornado.
Jarrett Watts, 63, said his son-in-law's mother lived in the house and was in the bathroom when the tornado struck, tearing the roof off, knocking down the walls and leaving only the foundation and flooring in place. Possessions were scattered across the yard, which was also strewn with snapped trees, overturned trailers and downed wiring.
Watts said his relative was hospitalized and had to get staples in her head, but she is expected to recover.
"Thank god they're just alive," Watts said, taking a break from sorting through the wreckage. "It's a blessing. It's a miracle. You can see — there's not much left."