When they saw the twister, the town's residents bolted for the safest places they could find. For some, it was the basement of a local tavern, housed in a century-old building.
But the foundation beneath the Milestone Tap was made of sandstone, and authorities say the rock crumbled under the tornado's power, killing eight people. Rescue workers found their bodies Wednesday among the ruins of the country-western-themed watering hole. Nine people were rescued alive.
"You could hear the kids screaming, the kids that were there, you could hear everybody screaming and yelling that was under the debris banging on stuff to try to give away their location of where they were at," said Richard Little, who was among those rescued.
"These buildings are so old, the roof goes and the whole thing is going to go," said resident Greg Crabbe. "They might have been better off going outside, but then you'd be hit by debris."
Several people from a nearby trailer park were among those who sought shelter Tuesday night in the basement of the Milestone, Mayor Fred Esmond said.
"They heard it on the radio. Some of them went to the tavern for safety, and it just so happened ..." Esmond said, his voice trailing off.
The building's crumbling sandstone foundation had slowed rescuers' efforts as they gingerly dug through the sandy rubble. Rescue workers used listening devices as they combed through the building's remains.
Authorities were not aware of anyone else missing after the tornado, which turned other buildings into piles of brick and splintered wood in the town about 90 miles southwest of Chicago.
The dead were identified by authorities as Larry Ventrice, 49; Marian Ventrice, 50; Wayne Ball, 63; Beverly Wood, 67; Helen Menke, 81; Carol Shultheis, 40; Mike Miller, 18; and Jay Vezain, 47. All were from Utica.
"When you realize just how much life has been lost in a tornado ... you never think it can happen in your community," said LaSalle County Sheriff Tom Templeton.
Esmond knew many of the victims. The Ventrices ran the tavern and lived above it, while Vezain worked for the grain elevator across the street. Ball was a retired railroad worker and Shultheis, his daughter, worked at another restaurant in town. He said Ball, Wood and Menke, who was retired, all lived in a trailer park near the tavern.
Mary Jo Chapman, 52, lives in the trailer park. She also knew two other victims.
"Good people," she said. "Good friends."
Wendy Jurkas, 54, of Granville, knew Ball and Shultheis.
"She would be here right now digging in to help people," Jurkas said of Shultheis.
Gov. Rod Blagojevich visited Utica and other communities Wednesday and declared four counties disaster areas, reports CBS News Correspondent Cynthia Bowers. That means a quick infusion of cash. Federal Emergency Management Agency officials plan to visit to see if the communities qualify for disaster relief.
The tornado was a category F-3, which typically creates wind speeds of 158 to 206 mph, said Andrew Krein, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service.
It was one of dozens that smashed through the Midwest. Indiana also was hard hit, and Iowa, Nebraska and Oklahoma reported twisters as well. A lightning storm hit Arkansas on Wednesday, striking a high school junior who died on his way to school.
Authorities said three to six people suffered minor injuries in Jamestown, Ind., northwest of Indianapolis. Four tractor-trailers were reported blown off highways.
In Joliet, a city southwest of Chicago, the storm damaged a dozen homes in a historic district and collapsed a drug store roof. The storm also damaged about 60 homes and a bank in Granville, officials said.
But all the destruction couldn't dampen the spirit of lifelong Utica resident 62-year-old Mike Payne.
"They ain't going to take Utica away from us," he said. "That's the way Utica is — you stick together."
And while Sheriff Templeton's faith was tested by the tornado, it remained solid.
"When you see other people who are standing up on that pile [of rubble] ... that gives you another kind of feeling, that you are glad you are here," he told CBS News.