WASHINGTON — Benny Benedict was in California four years ago when it happened.
He received a text message from a friend in Pennsylvania telling him a tornado had hit Washington that morning. The date was Nov. 17, 2013.
At first, Benedict wasn't terribly worried even though his parents and siblings lived in Washington. He thought maybe a few trees had been downed or a couple roofs had been blown off. Happens all the time in the Midwest.
Then, in his hotel room in Long Beach, Calif., Benedict saw a photo on The Weather Channel that showed a leveled subdivision in Washington.
Even though he lived in Washington from 1969 to 1986, Benedict didn't recognize the subdivision.
"I'll never forgot that moment seeing the picture," he said.
He tried to call his family members in Washington, but the calls didn't go through. He feared the worst and prayed for the best.
Finally, he received word that everyone in his family was safe, even though his sister and her family who lived on Wellington Drive had lost their home to the EF-4 twister.
"On a panic sale of 1-10, I went from a 12 to a 1 or 2," Benedict said.
Benedict was in California attending a seminar on a multi-level marketing business. He wasn't working at the time and admittedly was looking for "the next best thing" in his professional life.
He flew back Nov. 18, 2013, arriving at his Peoria home late.
After getting some sleep, he put on boots, a hoodie and jeans and drove to Washington the next day to see if he could help.
He couldn't see much, because many roads were closed. What he could see, he said, "blew me away."
He ended up at Crossroads United Methodist Church on North Main Street, a gathering spot for first responders and tornado victims.
"It was chaos in there," Benedict said. "Lots of people were crying."
Somehow, he ended up being a traffic cop, as he put it, making sure supplies were put away in the right locations. And, through the urging of the Rev. Tom Goodell, then Crossroads' pastor, he went to a meeting of Salvation Army volunteers.
That meeting led to Benedict becoming a Salvation Army volunteer for tornado recovery. There was a perk: He was able to get past barricades and see his sister in her home on Wellington, which wasn't habitable on the upper floor.
Fast forward to Nov. 17, 2017, four years after the tornado destroyed or damaged about 1,100 homes in Washington. Benedict now is the emergency disaster services assistant director for the Salvation Army's Heartland Division, which serves 72 counties in central Illinois and eastern Iowa from its headquarters in Peoria.
The 1979 Washington Community High School graduate has had the Salvation Army job for about a year and a half, after he served as the Salvation Army's case manager in Coal City following a June 23, 2015, tornado in the Grundy County community.
Benedict focuses on disaster preparedness and response in his assistant director job. One of his duties is serving as the Salvation Army's liaison for disaster response in Illinois.
A year from now, he plans to be a certified Illinois Professional Emergency Manager through the Illinois Emergency Management Agency.
He recently returned from a two-week stint working in hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico.
At age 56, the Lowpoint resident thinks he has found his career calling after stops ranging from the food and beverage industry to being the co-owner of a Peoria auto repair business.
"That tornado (in 2013) could have hit anywhere in central Illinois. It hit in what I consider my hometown, Washington," Benedict said. "I don't think it was a coincidence. After I started helping people as a Salvation Army volunteer, I thought, 'I think I'm good at this.'"
The horrors of the Washington tornado led Benedict to the Salvation Army. Benedict said he feels blessed to work for the organization, which he admits he knew little about previously.
"Some of the most genuine, nicest people I've ever met work for the Salvation Army," he said. "All they want to do is help people."
Rich Draeger, the Salvation Army's tri-county director of development, said Benedict is a valuable member of the Salvation Army team because of his passion for helping people.
"Benny will do whatever it takes," Draeger said.
The Washington tornado was a galvanizing factor in the growth of the Salvation Army Heartland Division's disaster response operations, Draeger said.
From one part-time person at the time of the tornado, there are now three full-timers — Benedict, Director Sam Amick and volunteer liaison Lana Barnhill — and teams of volunteers ready to spring into action.
The Salvation Army is always looking for volunteers to lend a hand after a disaster, Benedict said. There's information at disaster.salvationarmyusa.org.
And Benedict is looking for a forklift that can be donated. Send him an email at Benny.Benedict@usc.salvationarmy.org or call 655-7220.
Steve Stein can be reached at 686-3114 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @SpartanSteve.