"The whole neighborhood's gone. The wall of my fireplace is all that is left of my house," said Michael Perdun, speaking by cellphone from the hard-hit town of Washington, where he said his neighborhood was wiped out in a matter of seconds.
"I stepped outside and I heard it coming. My daughter was already in the basement, so I ran downstairs and grabbed her, crouched in the laundry room and all of a sudden I could see daylight up the stairway and my house was gone."
An elderly man and his sister were killed when a tornado hit their home around noon in the rural community of New Minden, said Mark Styninger, the coroner of Washington County in southern Illinois. A third person died in Washington, said Melanie Arnold of the Illinois Emergency Management Agency. She did not provide details.
By mid-afternoon, with communications difficult and many roads impassable, it remained unclear how many people were killed or hurt by the string of unusually strong late-season tornadoes. In a news release, the Illinois National Guard said it had dispatched 10 firefighters and three vehicles to Washington to assist with immediate search and recovery operations.
"I went over there immediately after the tornado, walking through the neighborhoods, and I couldn't even tell what street I was on," Washington Alderman Tyler Gee told WLS-TV.
"Just completely flattened — some of the neighborhoods here in town, hundreds of homes."
Among those who lost his home was Curt Zehr, who said he was amazed at the speed with which the tornado turned his farmhouse outside Washington into a mass of rubble scattered over hundreds of yards. His truck was sent flying and landed on a tree that had toppled over.
"They heard the siren... and saw (the tornado) right there and got into the basement," he said of his wife and adult son who were home at the time. Then, seconds later, when they looked out from their hiding place the house was gone and "the sun was out and right on top of them."
Steve Brewer, chief operating officer at Methodist Medical Center of Illinois in Peoria, said 14 people had come to the hospital seeking treatment for minor injuries, while another Washington area hospital had received about 15 patients.
He said doctors and other medical professionals were setting up a temporary emergency care center to treat the injured before transporting them to hospitals, while others were dispatched to search through the rubble for survivors.
About 90 minutes after the tornado destroyed homes in Washington, the storm darkened downtown Chicago. As the rain and high winds slammed into the area, officials at Soldier Field evacuated the stands and ordered the Bears and Baltimore Ravens off the field. Fans were allowed back to their seats shortly after 2 p.m., and the game resumed after about a two-hour delay.
Earlier, the Office of Emergency Management and Communications had issued a warning to fans, urging them "to take extra precautions and ... appropriate measures to ensure their personal safety." NFL games in Cincinnati and Pittsburgh also could be affected by the rough weather.
Just how many tornadoes hit was unclear Sunday afternoon. According to the National Weather Services' website, a total of 65 tornadoes had struck, the bulk of them in Illinois. But meteorologist Matt Friedlein said the total might fall because emergency workers, tornado spotters and others often report the same tornado.
Still, when the weather service was issuing its warning that severe weather was bearing down on the Midwest, officials said the last such warning issued so late in the season in November came in 2005, and the result was an outbreak of 49 tornadoes.
The storm followed warnings by the weather service that the storm was simply moving too fast for people to wait until they saw it to get ready.
"Our primary message is this is a dangerous weather system that has the potential to be extremely deadly and destructive," said Laura Furgione, deputy director of the National Weather Service National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. "Get ready now."
Hours later, at 11 a.m., weather service officials confirmed a tornado had touched down near the central Illinois community of East Peoria, about 150 miles southwest of Chicago. Within an hour, tornadoes were reported in Washington, Metamora, Morton and other central Illinois communities.
"This is a very dangerous situation," said Russell Schneider, director of the weather service's Storm Prediction Center. Some 53 million people in 10 states were "at significant risk for thunderstorms and tornadoes," he said.
Such severe weather this late in the season also carries the risk of surprise.
"People can fall into complacency because they don't see severe weather and tornadoes, but we do stress that they should keep a vigilant eye on the weather and have a means to hear a tornado warning because things can change very quickly," said Matt Friedlein, a weather service meteorologist.
According to agency officials, parts of Illinois, Indiana, southern Michigan and western Ohio were at the greatest risk of seeing tornadoes, large hail and damaging winds throughout the day Sunday.
Strong winds and atmospheric instability were expected to sweep across the central Plains during the day before pushing into the mid-Atlantic states and northeast by evening. Many of the storms were expected to become super cells, with the potential to produce tornadoes, large hail and destructive winds.
Friedlein said that such strong storms are rare this late in the year because there usually isn't enough heat from the sun to sustain the thunderstorms. But he said temperatures Sunday were expected to reach into the 60s and 70s, which he said is warm enough to help produce severe weather when it is coupled with winds, which are typically stronger this time of year than in the summer.
"You don't need temperatures in the 80s and 90s to produce severe weather (because) the strong winds compensate for the lack of heating," he said. "That sets the stage for what we call wind shear, which may produce tornadoes."
In fact, tornadoes this time of year happen more often than people might realize, he said, pointing to a twister that hit the Rockford, Ill., area in November 2010.
Babwin reported from Chicago. Sophia Tareen in Chicago contributed to this report.