The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

Local News

May 29, 2011

'A fist coming out of the sky': Six miles of terror

Along tornado’s path, victims recall trauma, wonder about future

JOPLIN, Mo. — The tornado crawled across Joplin.

Most tornadoes blow through towns, some at speeds of 50 miles per hour.

Not the EF-5 that hit Joplin one week ago today.

It rolled slowly, minute after agonizing minute, mile after agonizing mile.

An EF-5 is the most powerful of storms. On May 22, the tornado stayed on the ground for six miles, churning up neighborhoods, businesses, churches, schools, homes and lives. Three-quarters of a mile wide at times, the slow-moving tornado ground up everything before it.

The toll: an estimated 8,000 structures, roughly 300 businesses and 4,000 jobs affected, more than 1,150 injured and 142 lives lost. And counting.

Joplin was eviscerated.

Maybe the head meteorologist with the National Weather Service station in Springfield said it best: He called the tornado “a fist coming out of the sky.”

South Schifferdecker

The tornado first made contact near West 32nd Street and Central City Road.

Around 5:30 p.m., it claimed one of its first victims.

Eighteen-year-old Will Norton and his father, Mark, were driving to their home in the Arbor Hills subdivision following Will’s high school graduation ceremony at the Leggett & Platt Athletic Center. As they approached their home on Old Orchard Road, the fist bore down. Mark asked his son to pull over.

Father and son were both wearing seat belts. They clutched each other as their Hummer H3 was tossed and battered by wind and debris. In the roaring chaos, Will was pulled from his father’s arms. It was the last time he was seen alive.

In the coming days, authorities and family members scoured the area, searched for Will in area hospitals and set up a Facebook account: “Help Find Will Norton.” The site received thousands of posts.  

Mark was taken to Freeman West with injuries that included a broken arm, injuries family members believe were caused by his desperate efforts to hold on to his son.

One day last week, family friend and former Joplin firefighter Steve Lea watched as rescuers searched two debris-choked ponds along Schifferdecker for victims.  

“They were so close (to home).” Lea said. “Five seconds would have made so much difference, maybe even three seconds.”  

The family announced Saturday that Will’s body had been found in one of the ponds.

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