Surviving the storm: Ten years after 2003 tornado, family recalls being in the middle of storm

The congregation of the Federated Church of Lima rebuilt just north of town, opening the building just two years after the tornado destroyed the old church. The church is now affiliated with The Crossing. (H-W Photo/Michael Kipley)
Posted: May. 11, 2013 8:27 pm Updated: May. 26, 2013 1:15 am
The Federated Church of Lima is seen after a tornado ripped through Lima on May 10, 2003. The Fellowship Hall, where the Leeper family was holding a party, is just to the left of the back of the church. (H-W File Photo)

Herald-Whig Staff Writer

LIMA, Ill. -- A photo from 2003 tells the story.

In it, the doors to the old Federated Church of Lima are covered with dirt and other debris. In that dirt, you can make out the an outline of people.

While the old church is no longer standing, Margaret Leeper still has the photograph showing the heavy steel doors where she and three other family members held on for their lives 10 years ago.

Leeper along with her sister-in-law, Mary Fairchild, and Fairchild's children, Tony and Lori, held on to the doorknobs as a tornado passed through the small town in northwestern Adams County on Saturday, May 10, 2003. The tornado ripped a devastating path through Lima right after cutting through Canton, Mo., and the Culver-Stockton College campus.

About 20 buildings were destroyed in Lima, and because of all the downed power lines and gas leaks, the Illinois State Police declared martial law, meaning no one was allowed in or out of the town. Luckily no one died from the storms.

Today, even after the clenaup, there is still evidence of the 2003 tornado in Lima. A portion of sidewalk leads up to where the steps to the old church stood. Much younger trees in the area attest to that day's damage.

The congregation immediately moved forward with worship services, which were held at Greenfield Elementary School during construction of a new church just north of town. It opened in 2005, and last year it became affiliated with The Crossing.

On the day of the tornado, Margaret Leeper's family was hosting a Mother's Day picnic for 21 people. Originally, the picnic was planned at the Leepers' home, which was just up the road at the time. But they moved it to the church's Fellowship Hall because of bad weather.

The dark skies and wind eventually drew their attention.

"Somebody said it was a tornado," Margaret said. "I don't remember who. I had the keys to the church, and I was the only one who had the keys. They all looked alike."

She ordered everyone to head to the church where there was a basement.

"There was about 20 feet between the Fellowship Hall and the church, and I ran up to the door," Margaret said. "I tried one key. It didn't work. I tried another key, and then I dropped the keys."

The family had lined up behind Margaret when they realized they wouldn't get the door open. So her husband, Tom Leeper, and Mary's husband, Ralph Fairchild, started pulling people back into the Fellowship Hall telling them to take cover in the restrooms.

"They were yelling for us to come back in, and we just couldn't," Margaret said. "The wind was so strong, and the tornado was right there."

Ralph closed the door to the Fellowship Hall knowing his family was still out there. When the door was closed, the windows in the Fellowship Hall exploded.

"My first thought was this is where I am going to die," Margaret recalled.

Mary said when she wasn't being lifted by the winds from the tornado, she believed they weren't going to die.

"It did come in three bursts," she said. "It got harder and harder, and then it just stopped."

With Margaret and Tony holding onto the doorknobs, they could feel the doors gradually being sucked in.

"Please, don't let these doors come open," she recalled. "Because if they had, we would have been dead. There's no way we could have survived that."

Tony, 19 at the time, prayed that they would make it.

"I was praying out loud," he said. "I was crying out ‘Father! Father!' They thought I meant my dad. I was talking about the guy in the sky."

Lori, who was 15 in 2003, said she went through a mix of emotions -- from the thought of never being able to drive to dying in the tornado.

"Then I started praying, and I was able to experience peace during it," she said. "It felt very natural. It's Mother Nature, and then it was done and we were alive and everyone was safe."

They were lucky they were at the northeast corner doors. More than likely, they would have been injured if they were at any other entryway.

"Every other door that we looked at afterward had boards up against it and debris," Margaret said.

Meanwhile, Tom and Ralph laid on the floors just inside the hall when they couldn't make it to the restrooms with the rest of the family.

"Because the roof had been blown off, the wall was beating me on the shoulder," Ralph said.

With the roof partially blown off, Ralph thought that it might collapse on him, eventually killing him.

The roof did gave way but was held up by vertical chair racks the men were laying next to, saving their lives.

After the tornado passed, Ralph stepped out of the Fellowship Hall to see his wife, his children and his sister safe and sound, but the hall was severely damaged.

"I look at him and the roof is half way off, and I'm like ‘Get out of that building!' " Mary said.

Margaret then put the third key in the lock and the doors opened without any trouble.

They went to the basement of the church in case of more severe weather, before heading down the road back to the Leepers' house.

Even though they were in the middle of the storm, no one in the family was injured.

"What was amazing to me, everybody stayed calm," Ralph said. "There was no panic."



From left, Margaret Leeper, Lori Fairchild, Mary Fairchild and Tony Fairchild stand at the site of the old Federated Church of Lima. All four hung onto the church doorknobs on May 10, 2003, when a tornado ripped through Lima. (H-W Photo/Michael Kipley)