Rare Winter Tornadoes Rake Midwest

(AP) A freak cluster of tornadoes raked across an unseasonably warm Midwest, demolishing houses, knocking railroad cars off their tracks and even temporarily halting justice in one courthouse.

Record temperatures were reported across much of the country Monday, and storms continued to pummel the nation's midsection as darkness fell. More warmth and storms were in store for Tuesday.

Tornadoes were reported or suspected Monday in southwest Missouri, southeastern Wisconsin, Arkansas, Illinois and Oklahoma. Two people were killed in Missouri.

Eleven houses in Wisconsin's Kenosha County were destroyed, five others had heavy damage and four had moderate damage, authorities said. About 13 people were injured, none seriously.

"I have never seen damage like this in the summertime when we have potential for tornadoes," Sheriff David Beth said. "To see something like this in January is mind-boggling to me. This is just unimaginable to me."

Tim Carpentier was among the Kenosha residents whose homes had tornado damage. He said he and his daughters, 13 and 15 years old, heard storm warnings just after getting home. Then he heard a roar.

"I was just running down the stairs as the front windows blew out," he said. The front of his house was flipped over the roof, and neighboring houses had collapsed roofs and natural gas leaks.

Kenosha County Circuit Judge Bruce E. Schroeder, presiding over opening testimony in a murder trial, said he couldn't believe it when a deputy said the courtroom had to be evacuated because of a tornado warning.

"It's a first," he said while waiting with 300 people in the basement. "I've actually had.... warnings occur during jury trials before and frankly I just ignored them. But not in January."

Beckie Gilbert, a secretary who works in Wheatland, watched from her company's back door as wispy funnel clouds grew and the tornado uprooted about five trees.

"We saw it in the distance, which wasn't far, and it was pretty scary," she said. "We were watching as it picked up dirt and got really dark, and then it disappeared over some trees."

Meteorologists said the unusual weather was the result of warm, moist air moving from the south. It brought temperatures hovering near 70 degrees on Sunday and Monday.

"It's very unseasonable for this time of year," said National Weather Service meteorologist Benjamin Sipprell. "The atmosphere is just right."

About six homes were destroyed in the small town of Poplar Grove, Ill., where authorities rescued motorists trapped by downed, live electrical lines and crews searched damaged structures to make sure no one was trapped. Three people suffered minor injuries, Boone County Sheriff's Lt. Perry Gay said.

About 15 miles away in Harvard, Ill., a suspected tornado derailed one locomotive and 12 freight cars. A tank car containing shock fluid leaked for hours before it was contained, and another derailed car contained ethylene oxide, a flammable material widely used to sterilize medical supplies, but was not leaking, Union Pacific spokesman Mark Davis said.

Authorities ordered about 500 residents to evacuate the nearby unincorporated town of Lawrence, said Capt. David Shepherd with the McHenry County Sheriff's Office. No injuries were reported, he said.

Elsewhere, the heat was making history. By about noon Monday, Chicago's temperature already had hit 64 degrees, breaking a previous record-high of 59 degrees set on Jan. 7, 1907, according to the weather service.

The high in Buffalo, N.Y., of 59 degrees beat the old record for the date by 5 degrees. The high was 66 in Toledo, Ohio, a record that led some University of Toledo students to stroll to class in T-shirts, flip-flops and shorts. In New Jersey, the Atlantic City International Airport recorded a high of 68 degrees, breaking a 10-year-old record by 10 degrees.

Six snowmobilers missing in the Colorado mountains for 2 12 days while a howling blizzard swirled around them were rescued Monday _ hungry and cold but unhurt _ after taking shelter in a cozy cabin and calling 911 on a cell phone when the storm eased up.

The group, consisting of two couples and two teenagers, broke into the cabin, where they huddled around a gas grill and dined on popcorn and chicken bouillon they found inside.

"We counted 18 blankets. We were cozy," 31-year-old Shannon Groen said after rescue crews on snowmobiles brought the group to safety. "God was looking out for us.


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