The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

May 29, 2011

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

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

By Josh Letner
Globe Staff Writer

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.

2423 W. 26th Street

Becky Burris was slicing strawberries in the kitchen at St. Paul’s United Methodist Church that evening. Like a lot of people on the east sides of buildings that day, she was unaware of the storm’s approach. Although the tornado ripped off much of the roof and tore away an entire wall of the church, Burris didn’t get so much as scratch.

One of the church’s first priorities in the aftermath of the storm was making sure its members were OK.

“Communication is tough right now,” Fred Hampton, church administrator, said Tuesday as cleanup began. He was dealing with insurance issues, but his wife, director of Connections Ministry, took charge of contacting people.

Hampton said Tuesday that almost all of the congregation was accounted for.

St. Paul’s is an organization that believes in community outreach. Hampton said the tornado is the kind of disaster that would rally members to help others. Despite their own loss, that dedication remained part of their mission.

“We’ll still send people out there to help,” he said.

2600 block of South Monroe

Larry Eller and his wife, Chris, lost their home last Sunday. Sifting through the rubble two days later, Larry located a box of valuables that had been spared, but he was searching for something else.

“I’d like to find my passport,” Larry said. “I want to go to Europe next week.”

The Ellers rode out the storm in their basement, hiding under the stairs. The events were too much for Chris to talk about as she gingerly stepped through the debris that was once her living room.

“We got down to the door and then everything hit,” Larry said. “We knew we were in trouble when we looked up through the floor and saw lightning.”

Despite his wanderlust, Larry has no plans to move.

“We’ll rebuild,” he said. “It’s a good neighborhood with good people. We’ll rebuild and come back stronger.”

1802 W. 26th St.

Kevin Keys, head trustee of the Joplin Elks Lodge, was attempting to salvage remnants of the lodge’s long history last week.

But so much was lost.

One day earlier, rescuers removed five Elks who had taken refuge in the lodge. Only one survived, Keys said.

The lodge was scheduled to hold its weekly bingo game Sunday night. If the tornado had struck a couple of hours later, 50 people might have been inside.

As he tried to rescue century-old benches, photographs, statues and carved oak from the wreckage, Keys assessed the loss of physical history the Elks suffered.

“Our whole lodge room was lost,” he said. “Our exalted ruler’s chair was humongous carved oak, and there were three other chairs.”

Like St. Paul’s, the Elks are a charitable organization that the community leans on in time of need, but the devastation has left the group reeling. As Keys surveyed the landscape around the lodge, he was unsure what the immediate future holds, but then added: “We’ll be back. We’ll regroup. We’ve got over 500 members so we’ll be back.”

2602 McClelland Blvd.

Rance Junge sifted through the remains of the Pronto Pharmacy last week.

Junge was working there Sunday night. He was unable to see the storm approaching because the pharmacy did not have windows facing west.

“We didn’t have any hail and it didn’t look threatening on this side,” Junge said. “When I opened up the back door, I saw a wall and heard a huge noise, so I knew it was coming.”

Junge’s first instinct was to take shelter at St. John’s, but the tornado was on top of him.

When Junge and a co-worker ran to the front of the store to make their escape he was confronted with a chilling image. A motorist who saw the storm approaching was attempting to turn around in front of the store, but was gripped with fear.

“I could tell they were terrified by what they were seeing,” Junge said. “He tried to turn around in a panic but didn’t make it.”

“He didn’t have time to get in and we didn’t have time, the door pulled out of my hand and I knew we weren’t going to make it across the street.”

They took refuge in the store’s bathroom. The pair held onto plumbing to keep from being swept away.

“The building lifted, exploded, it did everything,” Junge said. “And then we were in the eye of the thing for a while because it calmed down and I thought, ‘Oh gosh, we made it.’ We could see daylight and there wasn’t a lot of building left, but then we got hit by the back side of it and that was when I got hit with debris in the back. I couldn’t protect my back and my head, and I got clubbed by stuff.”

He tilted his head slightly forward to display dark purple bruises that protruded from the collar of his shirt.

The terrified motorist was no where to be seen.

“I don’t think he made it, I think he went up in it,” Junge said.

He returned to the pharmacy later in the week to help remove hazardous material from the debris. Asked about the future, he sounded cautious.

“We have to see how much the community rebuilds,” he said. “We’d like to (rebuild), I mean we’ve been part of this community for 30 years.”

St. John’s

To get a sense of the EF-5’s power, consider: St. John’s Regional Medical Center, one of the biggest buildings in Joplin, shifted four inches off of its foundation, according to Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon. The damage was so severe that the hospital was unusable at the precise moment it was needed most.

According to the reports, some emergency room patients were sucked out into the parking lot. Hospital staff began evacuating 183 patients along with much of the equipment and supplies that were later used at the emergency triage center set up at Memorial Hall.

Six people died in the hospital — five patients in the intensive care unit and one visitor.

2602 S. Picher Ave.

Dr. Benjamin Rosenberg specializes in pediatric dentistry and treats children from across the region. His office was not open on Sunday, but his business was destroyed.

Shelly Crane, the business manager, said last week their first order of business was to find a place for their office.

Rosenberg had been practicing in the shadow of St. John’s since 1972, but according to Crane, that is likely to change. She said that due to the area’s demand for pediatric dental care, Rosenberg will be unable to wait the months that it would likely take to rebuild.

“With the area being so devastated, there’s going to be a lot of activity and it won’t be a safe area for our patients to be coming in and out,” Crane said. “There’s nothing here and it’s going to be a while, and we can move into a new place faster than we can rebuild.”

2502 S. Moffet Ave.

Sandy Conlee came out of her house immediately after the storm hit and saw a resident from the Greenbriar Nursing Home wandering down 26th Street.

“One of the little old men from the nursing home was standing in the middle of the street when we came out of the house,” Conlee said. “He had blood all over his head. He was in shock.”

Conlee said her brother and two sons joined in the search for survivors. They were shocked by the carnage that greeted them.

“There were bodies and broken bones and blood and stuff.”

Ten bodies were removed from the rubble, and on Tuesday a rescue dog identified the location of a possible 11th victim. An excavator was needed to remove a minivan that had crashed through the roof of one room.

2415 S. Moffet Ave.

Last week, Bishop James Johnston of the Catholic Diocese of Springfield-Cape Girardeau surveyed the loss. St. Mary’s Catholic Church, the rectory, the parish center, the adjacent Catholic elementary school, even the nearby frame house that served as the original church more than 70 years ago — all were destroyed.

Steel was twisted into a mass of metal and insulation that looked like a Brillo pad.

According to Johnston, the school lost members of one family — a father and his two daughters who took refuge in the Home Depot on Range Line Road. They were members of St. Peter the Apostle Catholic Church, he said.

But the large iron cross — which has withstood previous tornadoes — was still towering above the fields of debris, becoming a much-photographed icon.

Johnston said he had been contacted by bishops of other dioceses offering prayers and assistance, but it was a call from the bishop of Birmingham, Ala., that stood out. They went through something similar weeks before. His brother bishop was sharing everything he had learned.

Johnston said he was moved by the outpouring of support.

“We’re grateful, just like everyone in the Joplin community, for the goodness of people.”

300 Block of east 22nd Street

Not long after the storm, Kent Gilbreth stood in the street in front of the shattered remnants of his father’s home, his blue eyes fixed in what combat veterans describe as the “thousand-yard stare.”

This is the neighborhood that his father had lived in for 40 years.

Gilbreth took shelter in the corner of his father’s basement as the tornado plowed through the neighborhood.

“It sounded like a huge train,” he said. “I saw a black wall and got down to the basement just before it hit. I felt the suction and thought (I was) getting sucked out for a second. I got glass stuck everywhere.”   

As the father and son loaded what few possessions they could salvage into the bed of a truck, Gilbreth was unsure of their next move.

“We’ll just take it one day at a time,” he said.

2104 Indiana Ave.

Looking east from the Gilbreth home, much of the tornado’s path spreads open in a vista of complete destruction. The remains of Joplin High School and the nearby Franklin Tech Center are evident. It would be easy to believe that the buildings had been the target of an airstrike. The complete destruction of four schools and damage to six other buildings brought Superintendent C.J. Huff to the edge of tears in a press conference Tuesday.

As the week progressed, Huff already was rolling out plans for summer school — a chance for children to return to something routine — and vowing that school would begin as planned on Aug. 17.

The destruction to the district was estimated at $100 million. Huff said the district’s reconstruction plan hinges on the degree to which Joplin suffers from what he termed “the Katrina effect,” meaning the number of children whose families, with nowhere to live and no jobs left, simply up and leave.

“The big question is how many kids we’re going to have coming back this fall,” he said.

2300 block of South Wisconsin

Jennifer and Danny Moore and their two children said they felt lucky to be alive as they retrieved belongings from their flattened home. Danny and his daughter were returning from a trip to the Home Depot when the city’s tornado sirens sounded for the second time.

“It was just pitch black and there was debris flying, but I didn’t know what it was because this is the first tornado I’ve lived through,” Danny said.

But his wife knew the danger that was closing in.

“My husband and daughter were just pulling up in the drive and I looked over and saw it and had enough time to grab (the kids) and throw them in the bathtub and we laid down on top of them,” Jennifer said. “And then it started sucking us up and we just gripped the tub and held on and we thought we were through it because it calmed and you looked up and saw clear and the next thing you know, you saw it coming again.

“(Danny) was getting ready to get up and I said, ‘No, we’ve got to lay back down because that’s the eye of it.’”

Buried under debris, the family was freed by a neighbor. They then joined the effort to free others.

Jennifer was unsure whether the family would be willing to return to their neighborhood.

“We haven’t decided whether we’re going to stay here or not. I mean, I know we’re going to stay here in Joplin or Asbury cause that’s where all of our family is. Insurance will hopefully pay off and rebuild it, but I don’t know if we could ever come back. It’s kind of too much.”

2021 Hampshire Terrace

Rebecca Wilkinson stood in front of the remains of her apartment building. She stared at her home in dazed disbelief a day after she and her daughter rode out the tornado, like many others, in the bathroom.

“I got a call from my mother and she said to take cover, so I grabbed a blanket and headed to the bathroom,” she said. “By the time I shut the door, it hit.”

Wilkinson huddled with her young daughter as her apartment collapsed. The two were saved from the crushing weight of debris by her toilet and sink. As she and her daughter laid under the rubble following the tornado, she could hear her terrified neighbors cry for help.

“All I could hear were screams.”

Eventually, rescuers got to them.

“I handed my daughter out through a hole, and then an elderly gentleman came and pulled me out.”

3110 E. 20th Street

Home Depot was no match for the full fury of the EF-5, its winds spinning in excess of 200 miles per hour.

Seven people were killed when the store was hit.

Throughout much of the week, urban search and rescue crews looked for survivors with concrete saws, jackhammers, rescue dogs and fiber-optic cameras that snaked into dark spaces and under large concrete slabs that comprised the store’s front wall.

Rescue efforts were hampered by heavy rain showers early in the week. According to rescuers, rain washes away the scent left by survivors and makes it difficult for dogs. Despite the adverse conditions, the crews pressed on.

After getting the call Sunday evening, the rescue team was on the road within an hour. They arrived in Joplin after midnight and went to work at 3 a.m. After searching for nearly 15 hours, the exhausted team was forced to rest. According to team leader Doug Westhoff, the Joplin tornado is one of the worst disasters the unit has seen.

“This is a devastating event,” he said. “We’ve been to the World Trade Center, Hurricane Katrina twice, and Hurricane Ike. This is a significant weather event. This is Mother Nature telling us who’s in charge.”


The village of Duquesne was next in line. The tornado destroyed more than 250 homes, 50 of Duquesne’s 100 businesses, and killed at least eight people. Police Chief Tommy Kitch said 60 to 70 percent of the village is gone.

Pinned to the wall inside Duquesne City Hall is a large aerial photograph detailing the path of destruction through the village.

Duquesne’s mayor, Denny White, remains pragmatic about the village’s future.

“Some of these people will rebuild, some of them won’t, but those that don’t will sell their lots and someone else will buy. In a period of three to five years, we’ll build it all back.”

3425 Jaguar Road

By the time the storm reached the rural home of Randy and Cindy Wagner, the couple had had ample warning and time to get their family into a crawl space.

Wagner pulled a 150-pound concrete cover closed as the tornado approached. As the storm passed over, it pulled the heavy door off and flung it into the yard causing the family to crawl further under the house. Randy said he could feel the tornado sucking him out the opening. He braced himself against the foundation and held on to his home’s floor joists. After the storm had passed he crawled out and viewed the damage. Although he lost more than 20 majestic oak trees, and suffered extensive roof, fence, window and landscaping damage, Wagner considers himself lucky. His immediate and extended family are safe, his home is insured, and he has already received help from friends and family.

“We’re very fortunate and we are praying for the people in Joplin because we know they lost everything.”

Kodiak road

Just before 5:50 p.m., the tornado lifted off.

Six thousand to 8,000 structures.

Three hundred businesses.

Four thousand jobs.

More than 1,150 injured, 142 lives lost.

And counting.

The fist had done its work.

It took less than 20 minutes.