By Andra Bryan Stefanoni and Emily Younker
JOPLIN, Mo. —
It was with mixed emotions that Pamela Jean Praytor got to hear the president of the United States eulogize her son Sunday afternoon.
PAMELA JEAN PRAYTOR
“As a mama, I’m proud of him,” she said of her son. “I’m proud of what he did and thankful he saved the lives he did. But I would rather have my son back. That sounds selfish. But I miss him.”
Her son was Christopher Lucas, a 27-year-old father who is credited with saving the lives of several employees and customers at the Pizza Hut on Range Line Road when the brutal EF-5 tornado on May 22 bore down on the restaurant.
He was one of several heroes “who said, ‘I’m willing to die so someone else can live,’” President Barack Obama said during a memorial service at Missouri Southern State University one week after the tornado struck. Obama, Gov. Jay Nixon and several Joplin church leaders offered their support and encouragement to a crowd of tornado survivors who applauded each mention of Joplin’s resilience.
Lucas, who served his country in the Navy until 2009, was working at Pizza Hut when the tornado hit. He ushered more than a dozen people into a freezer in the restaurant, but the door wouldn’t stay closed, Obama said as he related Lucas’ story to the thousands who filled Taylor Performing Arts Center to capacity.
Lucas left the safety of the freezer to find a bungee cord or rope — it’s not clear exactly where or how — and returned to the freezer just as the tornado cut its path across Range Line Road.
He secured the cord or rope to the door handle, wrapped the other end around his arm and held on as long as he could.
“He saved more than a dozen people in that freezer,” Obama said. “There are heroes all around us, all the time.”
JOSH AND DYLAN CASTILLO
Paying homage to those heroes were Josh Castillo and his son, Dylan, who both wore homemade T-shirts with a hand-drawn heart on the front and “Joplin” written in capital letters underneath.
Dylan Castillo also had written “JHS” on the back of his shirt in hopes of drawing the attention of some of his classmates, who found their school year suddenly cut short. He is a freshman at Joplin High School and a former student at East Middle School and the old South Middle School, three buildings heavily damaged by the storm.
“To represent Joplin in some way makes me feel useful right now,” said Josh Castillo, whose house on 11th Street is still intact. “I felt like it was important to be here (with) the opportunity to show support for those that are injured and can’t be here, those that are emotionally unable to be here.”
Castillo said he would have attended the ceremony even if Obama had not come, but the president’s presence and remarks — particularly the notion that the foreign leaders he met during his weeklong trip to Europe last week were expressing concern about Joplin — were appreciated.
Also appreciated, even for those who aren’t deeply religious, was seeing followers of different faiths come together during the ceremony, he said.
“I know to a lot of people, the fact that he (Obama) showed up was significant,” he said as he clutched two small American flags in his hand. “I found some comfort in their words and knowing that for thousands and thousands of other people, that’s what they needed to hear.”
DENNIS AND CORA DUKES
For Dennis and Cora Dukes, who lost their vehicles and the Jefferson Avenue house they have lived in for 33 years, Sunday’s ceremony was “very comforting” and encouraging.
“Going through something this horrendous, it’s good to know the rest of the country cares,” Dennis Dukes said.
Said Cora Dukes: “It’s good to know that we’re not alone. The country took notice.”
Dennis Dukes also said he appreciated the president’s remarks, which in large part eulogized the victims and provided words of hope for Joplin’s recovery without digging into politics.
“It was appropriate for a memorial service,” he said.
Vicki Simmons, a Carthage native now living in Colorado, described the ceremony as a “wonderful tribute” to those who gave their lives last weekend during the tornado.
“What’s most meaningful to me that they (the speakers) all stressed is to love one another,” she said. “I loved that President Obama said everybody is a brother. We have got to remember that and exercise more tolerance and understanding to be there when even people who are different than us need our help.”
The Fisher family, of Joplin and now homeless, said they wanted to be part of Sunday’s historic ceremony. Jud Fisher sang with the First United Methodist Church choir as an introduction to the speeches, while his wife, Cindy, and grown children, Katie and Nathan, were in the audience.
The family members were caught by the tornado in their vehicle while on their way home from the Joplin High School graduation at the university, where Nathan just hours earlier had spoken as the senior class president and received his diploma. All were unharmed, although they lost their home.
Cindy Fisher said it was encouraging to hear both the governor and the president relay their dedication to helping Joplin move forward.
“He (Nixon) was willing for the state to back our community,” she said. “President Obama was very supportive and made the comment that not only is the nation behind us, but the world is, too.”
When asked whether she thought the ceremony was a good starting point in the healing for Joplin, Fisher said yes.
“I think it is part of healing for the community to come together as much as possible, and embrace each other and share the faith,” she said.
Janice Wade, of Galena, Kan., was in attendance for her daughter and granddaughter, who lost their Joplin home in the tornado. Wade said she also lost two co-workers, and a third co-worker still was on the list of missing people on Sunday.
But the community service provided a glimpse of hope for the future, she said.
“I see a community that has come together,” she said. “I see people from all over the country that have come to stand behind us.”
Praytor said as she left the ceremony she has heard during the past week from many of the families of those Lucas saved.
“That was just the way my son was,” she said. “That was Chris. I’m glad he saved those lives. I’m thankful for the people he kept from dying. As a mom, you are proud. But it doesn’t bring him back. That’s my conflict.”
And it made her feel good that someone, somewhere had told the president about her son.
“There’s stories all over, stories of people who have stopped what they were doing to help,” she said. “Chris wasn’t the only one.”
Praytor, who lost her home and all her possessions as a resident of the Plaza Apartments behind the 15th Street Wal-Mart, said she was thankful that Obama came to Joplin and for the words of all those who spoke Sunday.
“To hear the president, it made me feel good because what Chris did, well, how can you put it into words?” she said.