Globe Staff Writer
JOPLIN, Mo. —
A tornado, which at its zenith was three-quarters of a mile wide, roared across the heart of Joplin at 5:30 p.m. Sunday, killing dozens of people and injuring hundreds.
The coroners of Newton and Jasper counties were setting up a temporary morgue Sunday night in Joplin. The death toll at 11 p.m. Sunday was 11 people. That number, the coroners said, was expected to grow to more than 100.
Teams with body bags were being dispatched to Home Depot, Wal-Mart, Academy Sports & Outdoors, Sonic and other businesses between 15th and 20th streets along Range Line Road, one of the hardest hit areas in the city.
Update: Freeman has already treated close to 500 people, only taking critically injured
Freeman Health System is only taking critically injured patients at this point, according to Christen Stark, hospital spokesperson. Those with lesser injuries are being asked to go to other area hospitals or other local clinics.
At last count, 467 tornado-related injuries had been treated by Freeman staff, nine of who have died as of 4:30 a.m.
Newton County Coroner Mark Bridges, in a telephone interview Sunday night, said bodies were being recovered from places where people attempted to seek shelter from the storm but were crushed by falling roofs.
Bridges said family members were calling to find out whether loved ones were among the dead. In one instance, a man was identified by a cross that had been tattooed on his arm.
Keith Stammer, emergency management director for Joplin and Jasper County, said whole apartment complexes were blown away. Also hit were nursing homes.
C.J. Huff, superintendent of Joplin’s schools, said Joplin High School, Franklin Technology Center and Irving Elementary School were destroyed. The roofs were blown off East Middle School and Cecil Floyd Elementary.
St. John’s Regional Medical Center took a direct hit from the tornado. Several patients in that hospital were transferred to Freeman Hospital West, which was overwhelmed by injured people. People were being delivered in pickup trucks, lying on doors and pieces of plywood that served as makeshift stretchers. Also overwhelmed was an emergency medical center that was set up at Memorial Hall.
Stammer said the tornado traveled from the west side of the city to the southeast. The damage zone stretched from about 26th Street and Schifferdecker Avenue to 20th Street and Prosperity Road.
The tornado was a half-mile wide when it hit Joplin. It grew to a width of three-quarters of a mile wide before dissipating to a width of a half-mile.
Stammer said the tornado was observed on radar by the National Weather Service station at Springfield. The sirens were sounded at 5:11 p.m. The lead time before the tornado hit was about 20 minutes.
Mike Griffith, a meteorologist with the weather service station, said a supercell thunderstorm intensified rapidly west of Joplin in Cherokee County, Kan.
“It was clear that a hook echo was forming and that a large tornado was developing,” he said. “We picked up the debris ball here on our radar. When you see that, it signifies that major damage is going on.”
Griffith said the tornado that struck Joplin was a right-turning tornado, the same type of tornado that struck Picher, Okla., and Newton County on May 10, 2008.
“Supercells often produce right-turning tornadoes, and when they do they are bigger tornadoes,” he said. “This is a high-end tornado. It could be an EF4, but that is only a guess at this point.”
The storm traveled across northern Newton County and into Lawrence County. Numerous tractor-trailer rigs were blown off Interstate 44.
Many major streets were impassable because of downed trees and utility poles. Emergency vehicles raced across the city, escorting injured residents to hospitals.
After the storm passed, Roy Holden stood in his front yard at 3110 W. 26th St., next to a utility pole that had blown over and blocked the street.
“We were lucky, very lucky,” Holden said. “It’s a lot worse just south of here. We have some tree limbs down and windows broken. I’m finding all kinds of things in my yard that’s not mine.
Just east of Holden’s house, Tom Rogers was not so lucky. He walked along 26th Street with his daughter to view the storm damage.
“Our house is gone,” he said. “It’s just gone. We heard the tornado sirens for the second time. All of a sudden, everything came crashing down on us. We pulled our heads up and there was nothing. It was gone.”
ST. JOHN’S MEDICAL CENTER
Billowing smoke and a likely natural gas leak were challenges confronting rescuers and emergency personnel trying to save lives and assist people trapped by the devastation of the tornado that leveled whole neighborhoods in south Joplin.
St. John’s Regional Medical Center was directly in the path of the powerful tornado.
An elderly man and woman were making their way from the wreckage of the hospital. Wrecked cars were piled on top of each other, windows were blown out, and streets were blocked by debris and by survivors trying to flee.
Across the street, a young man crawled out of the wreckage of his home at 26th Street and Empire Avenue, grateful just to be alive.
“I asked God to get me through this, and he did,” he said as he searched amid the ruins for neighbors and friends.
Joplin resident Sara Ferguson, reached by phone, said she was in the 32nd Street area after the storm passed through. She said side streets were impassable because of downed power lines. The area between Maiden Lane and Jackson Avenue in that part of town was “just devastating to see,” she said.
“The houses are all gone. The medical buildings are gone,” she said. “(St. John’s hospital’s) windows have all been blown out. It was horrible. I couldn’t even take pictures on my phone. I was crying.”
A hospital official at Freeman Health System said critical patients were being treated there, while others were being taken to other area hospitals.
St. John’s Regional Health Center in Springfield was beginning to receive patients from the Joplin hospital by 10 p.m. and was “fully expecting more,” said spokeswoman Cora Scott.
She said the Springfield hospital had sent ambulances, first response personnel, and medical and pharmaceutical supplies to Joplin.
RANGE LINE ROAD
The roof of the Wal-Mart Supercenter at 15th Street and Range Line collapsed during the devastating tornado.
Justin Schlesselman, a security officer at the Wal-Mart store, was near the back of the store when he heard the wind roar and felt the roof shake.
“All of a sudden there was a big whoosh, and the ceiling started falling,” he said.
Schlesselman said he was knocked to ground by debris from the ceiling and, along with a number of other employees, was buried under the rubble for more than 20 minutes.
“People were freaking out and screaming for help,” he said. “I just hollered and told everybody to stay calm and that help was on the way.”
Schlesselman said other store employees and customers eventually were able to pick the debris off those who had been trapped, and they all made their way out of the back of the collapsed building.
“It was a normal Sunday,” he said. “There were probably about 150 people in the store. I don’t know how many got out. I just know that everyone in our area did. One guy’s foot was trapped by a beam, but we were able to lift it off his leg.”
Schlesselman was living in Carl Junction in 2003 when a tornado ripped through the town. The house he was living in was damaged but not destroyed.
“We lost some stuff, but we were OK,” he said. “I was afraid for my life in this one.”
Joe Cabalero and Joe Barbosa were working at the Home Depot at 3110 E. 20th St. when the roof of that building collapsed. Cabalero said that when he heard the tornado siren, he and other employees began herding everyone in the store to the rear of the building.
“We had about a three-minute window before the roof went,” Cabalero said. “We heard a big rumble, and that was it.”
Barbosa said that once the storm passed, employees began checking the parking lot for victims. He said the only people they found in a car were a man, a woman and a child near the front of the parking lot.
“We were able to get the man and the girl out, but the woman’s arm was pinned,” he said. “They (emergency personal) were able to get her out.”
Cabalero said there were probably 16 to 20 customers in the store when the storm hit. To his knowledge, all of the customers and all of the store employees made it out of the building safely, he said.
This was not Cabalero’s first experience with natural disaster. He said he was living near New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina hit the area in 2005.
“We were in a three-story house,” he said. “The water covered up the first two stories, and we were stuck on the third floor for two days.”
The Joplin School District posted a notice on its Facebook page: “No school will be held on any Joplin school campus on Monday. Staff, do not report unless requested. Several district facilities have sustained substantial damage and we are assessing the situation.”
The district said Facebook will be its only method of communication for the immediate future.
Huff, the superintendent, said Cecil Floyd Elementary and East Middle School both sustained heavy damage, including lost roofs and structural damage. Irving Elementary, Joplin High School and Franklin Technology Center were considered destroyed. Huff also said he had heard reports of severe damage to Duquesne Elementary, and he assumed Kelsey Norman Elementary had been damaged because of its proximity to Joplin High School, though he couldn’t confirm it.
“But Irving, I’ve had a visual confirmation. It’s been destroyed.” he said.
Red Cross volunteers have set up a shelter for those who have lost their homes in the Leggett & Platt Athletic Center at Missouri Southern State University .
Iris Elliott, a health services volunteer and nurse, said the Red Cross was providing shelter for those in need but was not in a position to provide any medical care beyond basic first aid.
“We’ve got a lot of people here already,” she said Sunday night.
The Red Cross is not receiving volunteers at the shelter, but Elliott said those interested in providing assistance should contact the Joplin Red Cross office at 417-624-4411.
Donald Hutchison and his wife, Naomi, were among those seeking help at Memorial Hall on Sunday night. Donald Hutchison’s T-shirt was splattered with blood from a sliced thumb.
“We live near Dillons (at the Hampshire Terrace Apartments),” he said. “We got under a stairway as far as we could go. It took our whole apartment. It blew out our front door where we were at, but it didn’t suck us out. God was with us. After 44 years of marriage, we lost everything. The car, everything. We’re just happy to be alive.”
John Eadons had walked more than five blocks through the middle of Joplin before hitching a ride on the back of a pickup truck to reach Memorial Hall.
“This is just surreal to me,” said Eadons. “It’s clean (with lights) here; there’s no devastation.”
Robin Wiley, a St. John’s spokeswoman who was on the scene at Memorial Hall, said the injured were “coming in by the dozens.”
“We’re running out of supplies,” she said.
A short time later, the injured were asked to report to McAuley Catholic High School instead of Memorial Hall because of space and supply limitations.
Dozens of people waited in the parking lot of McAuley Catholic at 10th Street and Pearl Avenue, while hundreds more made their way inside to seek shelter and medical attention.
Volunteers helped the injured down the north hall of the building in walkers, wheelchairs and even rolling office chairs. Others directed the uninjured to a shelter in the south gymnasium.
A volunteer taking names of the injured said the building was “overflowing” with medical aid workers, nurses and doctors who had come to help.