The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

Local News

May 23, 2011

From graduation to terror

JOPLIN, Mo. — Less than an hour before Sunday’s killer storm carved a river of misery through town and leveled Joplin High School in the process, 18-year-old Kasey Grant had stood before her classmates and exhorted them to cherish their memories and be thankful.

“Be excited,” Grant said in her speech. “The ride of your life is set to begin.”

But just minutes after the 455 newly minted graduates of Joplin High walked across the stage Sunday afternoon at the Leggett & Platt Athletic Center on the Missouri Southern State University campus, the tornado sirens began to scream. The destruction that followed would leave the graduates and their families shaken, if not worse, and may come to define the passage of this class to adulthood.

“It’s kind of hard to know what to feel,” said Grant, an 18-year-old who was invited to speak because she was among Joplin High’s top seniors. “Graduation is supposed to be a happy day, but it all quickly turned into this day full of devastation.”

About 60 percent of the district’s 7,747 students have been displaced by the storm, according to Superintendent C.J. Huff. The district had no word of student or staff deaths, Huff said, but he added that the welfare of only a fraction of students had been determined. He also said the district was checking into the possibility that some staff members may have been working off-hours at the high school or other district buildings.

“It was the scariest thing I’ve ever been around,” Huff said of the storm.

He remembered the mood at the graduation as “lighthearted.”

“The sirens went off just as I was walking to my car,” Huff said. “It was about 5:20.”

The arena, which has a capacity estimated at 6,000, was full or nearly so with relatives and well-wishers to see the largest Joplin High graduating class in years. Some stragglers were led to a basement shelter in the arena, but most of the audience members took to their cars — and many drove straight into the teeth of the storm.

Graduating sisters Melinda and Sabrina Duncan were in their grandmother’s car, on their way to Wal-Mart on 15th Street to pick up a graduation cake. They realized something was seriously wrong when they reached the store and found it was in a state of lockdown.

“The graduation was beautiful,” said the grandmother, Sharon Duncan. “But when it was over, we got sucked into a tornado.”

The trio took shelter in Sharon Duncan’s white Toyota Camry, which was soon being buffeted by debris and other cars. They saw the front of the Wal-Mart store dissolve, they said. Then all of the windows of the car blew out, exposing them to the wind and hail.

“There was hail, tree limbs and glass,” Sharon Duncan said. “Then we were buried among the other cars, and we had to crawl out through a window.”

The three suffered only scrapes and bruises.

“We were all holding hands,” said Sabrina Duncan, 17. “And we were praying.”

“I’ll always remember this,” said 18-year-old Melinda Duncan. “I survived my first tornado on the day I graduated.

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