ROCHELLE — Dinnertime neared at Grubsteakers on Thursday. To Saul Castelan, it was “fried chicken night.”
Castelan, the cook, began to toil his night away in the kitchen of the little restaurant north of Rochelle when a few customers interrupted his evening. They suggested he look outside.
Ava Fejzoski, the skeptic, already had. Cleaning tables in her restaurant where she played the country music low, she peered through the windows at the dark clouds swirling overhead. Fejzoski, 44, later said she doubted the tornado warnings. She predicted stormy weather, nothing more.
Ray and Betty Kramer, the faithful, knew better. Traveling home from Rockford with a car full of precious photo prints, Italian bread and a strong faith in God, they spotted the funnel cloud from Illinois Highway 251. The couple pulled over at Grubsteakers. They grabbed Betty’s phone and purse, and they rushed inside through the hail.
None of them realized the harrowing ordeal fate planned for them next. Soon they would be forced to take shelter in a tiny, concrete storm cellar with a dirt floor as a tornado flattened the restaurant where their lives converged. They would huddle with eight others in darkness broken only by cellphone light as they frantically called for help.
Inside the basement of Grubsteakers, they would hold hands.
They would pray.
And thanks to some quick, heroic thinking — and a storm cellar Fejzoski rarely used before — all 12 would live.
“It saved us,” Fejzoski said later. “That little basement saved everybody.”
Castelan, 46, did what the customers told him. He looked outside. The wind blew hard. Clouds swirled in the darkness.
“Oh my God,” Castelan recalled thinking later. “I’ve got to do something for these people.”
Saul Castelan surveys the damage at Grubsteakers restaurant Friday morning. Castelan was one of 12 people who took shelter in the restaurant’s basement as a tornado swept through the Rochelle area the night before.| Ashlee Rezin/For Sun-Times Media
Ray Kramer, 81, was inside Grubsteakers with his wife, taking photos of the storm. But suddenly they heard Castelan barking orders: “We’re going to the basement!”
The cook said it over and over again — “you gotta go!” He said he urged one woman out of a bathroom. Another had trouble walking. Castelan said he put his arm around her as he guided her out of the restaurant.
Fejzoski’s skepticism vanished. She saw one man duck outside to escape on his own. “It’s too late!” she cried, but she couldn’t stop him.
The Kramers put their faith in Castelan. The cook led them through the kitchen, out a back door and to a storm cellar entrance where “it takes a man and a gorilla to lift the doors up,” Ray Kramer said.
Dust and debris swirled in the air. Castelan urged the woman he’d been helping down the stairs. Finally, as both descended into the darkness, Castelan said the restaurant began to collapse.
“To me, it sounded like someone was up there, throwing big huge rocks, just, over and over and over,” Betty Kramer, 73, said.
Castelan ducked. He looked back through a gap in the debris And he said he saw a semi fly up into the air.
Fejzoski kept very little in that storm cellar. Ray Kramer spotted an old boiler and a hot water tank, he said. He and his wife saw cobwebs. And they saw a waitress sobbing in the dirt.
Castelan smelled gas. He helped push some debris aside to let fresh air flow in. And he shut off the gas with a valve in the cellar, he recalled.
Fejzoski stood beside one of her sons. But another son was many miles away in Chicago. She wanted to see him one more time, she thought to herself. She assured the other 11 inside the cellar they would “be OK.” As the smell of gas lingered, though, she didn’t believe.
“I was thinking, ‘We’re done, we are dead,’ ” Fejzoski said.
The Kramers tried to comfort the sobbing waitress as dust fell down into their hair and clothing. Ray Kramer put his hand on her shoulder. And he began to pray.
“Dear Lord Jesus, please comfort this young lady,” he later recalled praying. “Take the fear out of her. Because she is fearful of what is not going to happen. And just give her peace.”
Soon Fejzoski’s façade began to break. Ray Kramer sensed her fear. He walked over, took her hand and prayed with her, too.
For the first few minutes inside the storm cellar, the people inside tried and tried to use their cellphones to call their families. To call 911.
In the end, it was Fejzoski’s phone that worked.
A few minutes later, Castelan looked through the gap in the debris. He saw the brown pant leg of a uniformed officer.
Help had arrived.
The officer passed down a flashlight. Rescue crews began to cut through the debris. The Kramers said the mood in the cellar lightened. The guys chit-chatted, he said. A truck driver in the cellar showed off photos of his brand-new rig.
And Ray Kramer said he started singing: “I’ll be down to get you in a wheelbarrow, honey, don’t be late, we’re gonna dance the night away.”
Rescue workers finished cutting through and began lifting the survivors out of the cellar. Castelan later recalled seeing the remains of Grubsteakers for the first time. The tornado dropped the semi near the cellar entrance and scattered debris over the fields nearby. The walls that once surrounded the kitchen where Castelan worked were gone.
“I’ve never seen this in my life before,” Castelan said.
They came out one by one. Out of the 12, a few suffered minor injuries, officials would say later. Fejzoski said she passed out after her escape and had to go to a hospital. Betty Kramer hugged a firefighter. “I didn’t want to let go of this guy,” she said.
Ray Kramer locked his hands together and let the rescuers lift him out of the cellar to freedom. He looked around at the wreckage. And he said he had one thought.
“It’s a beautiful life,” Ray Kramer said.