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Joplin tornado was deadliest in decades

  • Kansas City Star
  • Published Tuesday, May 24, 2011, at 12:07 a.m.
  • Updated Wednesday, July 18, 2012, at 8:28 a.m.

JOPLIN, Mo. —The monster tornado that ripped this city in half Sunday was on the ground about 20 minutes.

The images it left behind will stick with people for the rest of their lives.

Not just the denuded trees, or the buildings twisted or turned to rubble, or the cars blown with such force that they were heaped and fused together like sculpture.

It's the faces of people, loved ones and strangers.

Like that of the 5-year-old boy found dead beneath the tangle of steel and mountain of bricks that was once Joplin High School. The boy's mother cried in grief when she heard.

"I'm devastated inside," said Luke McCormick, the shaken 19-year-old volunteer rescue worker who helped lift the boy's body from the debris at 22nd and Iowa streets.

In what was the deadliest tornado in the U.S. in 58 years, the numbers were staggering:

A death toll that rose Monday to 116. Authorities expected the number of confirmed deaths to rise today.

An estimated 400 people injured; officials would not say how many were in critical condition.

And 1,700 calls to authorities about missing people.

But there was some good news: Rescuers on Monday pulled 17 people from the debris, Gov. Jay Nixon said.

And rescue teams were going to keep working through the night.

"We're going to cover every foot of this town to make sure every person here, who was here, is accounted for," Nixon said." ... There are still lives out there that need to be saved."

The tornado, estimated by the National Weather Service to be an EF-4, tore a six-mile-long path — 1/2to 3/4 of a mile wide — through the middle of Joplin late Sunday afternoon. Much of the city's south side was leveled, with churches, businesses and homes reduced to ruins by winds estimated as high as 190 to 198 mph.

Along with the high school, Franklin Technology Center and Irving Elementary School were destroyed, and East Middle School and Floyd Elementary were damaged.

Up to a quarter of the buildings in the city of 50,150 were damaged, City Manager Mark Rohr said. But he cautioned that no one had an exact accounting.

Some looting was reported.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency declared the tornado-ravaged region a disaster area, making it eligible for federal aid. FEMA added Jasper and Newton counties to the disaster declaration already in place as a result of recent storms in the state.

By Monday afternoon, rescuers had made three sweeps, block by block, for survivors. Authorities had not released names or other details of the victims.

A Riverside, Mo., police officer was badly injured by lightning Monday while helping with rescue-and-recovery efforts in Joplin, Riverside Public Safety said.

The officer, 31, was standing next to an all-terrain vehicle when lightning struck the ground next to him late Monday.

Close to the dead

Outside McAuley Catholic High School, recast as an impromptu medical triage center, Carolene Coleman, 70, dropped her head. Her voice quavered. Her eyes pooled with tears as she sat scraped and bruised in a wheelchair, her ankle bandaged.

All she and her husband were doing was stopping for a drink at the Elk's Lodge, 1802 W. 22nd St. Then the twister struck. There was no basement; nowhere was safe.

"The roof collapsed on everybody," she said. She was crushed. Her husband, Clyde, 74, lay on top of her, his body still, for nearly six hours. They were married for 54 years.

She knew the truth.

"He's dead," she said.

Katie Thrasher, 25, was in the Sportsmans Park bar at 1729 E. Seventh St. She had just gotten off work at the AT&T store where, normally, she closed up on Sunday. But this day, a co-worker closed the store.

The tornado flattened Katie's home across from Joplin High. Nothing was left Monday but rubble and the concrete skirt to her driveway.

While Thrasher was hiding safely in the bar's walk-in cooler, the tornado blasted the AT&T store at 1702 Range Line Road. Her friend who'd stayed to close the store died.

For Deidre Wessman, 49, the only image she wants to remember is that of her son, 12-year-old Chance Hamilton, running out of their house at 2202 Porter Road after the storm, in search of his neighborhood friends. And once he found them, embracing in the middle of the street.

"That's what I want to remember. That sight," she said.

Saving patients

Dorothy Doescher, 79, was in Room 413 of St. John's Regional Medical Center when the speakers announced "Code gray," warning of a tornado.

Doescher, who has bone cancer, had been in the hospital for 14 days. Nurses barely had enough time to move the patients into the hallway when the code was changed to black: Danger, tornado bearing down.

Nurses rushed the patients into the hallway and had barely finished shutting the room doors when the winds struck. Glass exploded from the windows. Door whipped of their hinges into the hallways.

Maritta Tatum, who'd been in Room 605 suffering pneumonia, felt the wind and rain blast through the hallway. She gripped a railing. Her head smashed against the wall, opening a gash. Patients in wheelchairs crashed against each other. Ceiling tiles rained on top of the patients, striking Tatum in her right eye, which would bulge and bruise.

"If I hadn't held on, I would have been sucked out the window," she said. "The force was so horrible. All the lights popped. They didn't have time to move us any further."

Rod Lyles, an infertility doctor from Overland Park, was traveling through the Joplin area after the tornado and stopped to volunteer.

He went first to St. John's, but staff was evacuating patients to nearby Freeman Hospital. Lyles went to work there in a conference room filled with gurneys. For several hours, he sewed sutures on patients who had been cut by debris.

Most of the injured had lost their homes. They had no idea where their loved ones were. And they had nowhere to go. "By the dozens and dozens," he said.

Lyles said he was struck by how, despite all of the suffering and loss, the storm survivors didn't lash out. "Everybody — and I mean everybody, patients, families, medical personnel — was perfectly calm," he said.

Shelter and loss

In Missouri Southern University's Robert Young Gymnasium, about five miles from ground zero, the American Red Cross set up shelter for Joplin's displaced people.

Doctors and other medical personnel tended throughout the day to the wounded and the rattled.

One doctor was looking at Steve and Shana Ostrander and their three young children; Steve Ostrander said he and the family had just a few seconds' warning and knew they could not get to shelter. They had been watching weather reports Sunday on the television when Steve told his wife, "It's coming right at us."

They put their 3-year-old and 6-year-old boys in a closet. Shana held their 1-year-old between her legs. When the tornado hit, Steve lay on top of his wife and baby.

"The house creaked and it came apart," he said. "Things were flying everywhere and I knew the roof and sides were all gone."

When it was over, the closet where the two little boys had hunkered down was gone. But an ironing board in the closet had fallen on top of them, covering them.

As rain hampered Monday's rescue efforts, Nixon spoke of the lives lost and how Missourians across the state were praying for the people of Joplin.

"The trees will grow back," he said, "the houses will be built back, but the lives lost here we'll remember forever."

Contributing: Judy Thomas, James Hart, Mara Rose Williams and David Goldstein of The Star; Associated Press.

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