JOPLIN, Mo. — Editor’s note: Roger Nomer, a Joplin Globe photojournalist, was one of the first photographers on the scene of the May 22 tornado. His photograph of Sgt. Gabe Allen of the Joplin Police Department carrying Aspen Bowman across the Academy Sports parking lot became the image of the night after distribution by The Associated Press.
The sky looked dark, but nothing more unusual than a typical springtime storm.
I was on duty May 22 at the Globe, and had just finished taking photos of Joplin High School’s graduation when the storm sirens started to sound at Missouri Southern State University.
Most of the graduates split into two groups, either running for their cars or running back into the Leggett & Platt Athletic Center. I joined the group running for the parking lot, although I wasn’t overly concerned at the time. However, listening to the radio on my way back to the Globe, I heard the increasingly panicked reports of a tornado hitting different parts of town. Making a sharp U-turn, I started driving to the center of most of the reports — Range Line Road.
I’ve been on the scene right after a tornado strike before, most recently in 2008 in Newton County. But I’ve never witnessed utter destruction like I saw that Sunday night, stretching as far as I could see in all directions. It was frightening, overwhelming, and, most of all, it didn’t seem real. Honestly the night becomes a total blur in my memory. Only by looking through the photos that I shot that night can I remember any details at all.
Most of my first 10 to 20 photos from that night are shaky, blurry messes. After calming down, I started to shoot scenes of the destruction and of people being rescued from collapsed buildings. I remember little moments, like trying to help a lady find which building was the Pizza Hut since her grandmother had taken shelter there or stopping to let a couple use my cellphone so they could let their family know they were OK. And, I remember shooting lots of photos around the parking lot of Academy Sports. It seemed to be a hub for medical treatment and rescue workers, so I camped out there for a while.
While there, I noticed some movement across the parking out of the corner of my eye. I swung my camera around, not even knowing what I was focused on. I shot three frames in quick succession of an officer carrying a girl over a curb. The first thing that went through my mind was the famous photo from the Oklahoma City bombing of the firefighter carrying the baby out of the rubble.
I was struck by the look of compassion on the officer’s face, and the calm way he carried out his duty in this chaos. Then, something else caught my eye, and I forgot about that shot until I came back to the newsroom three hours later.
Coming back across that shot in my photos later that night was like a revelation.
I wanted and needed to capture the destruction of this tornado for everyone in Joplin and across the country. I wanted my pictures to move people. If just one photo of mine could help people visualize the physical and emotional devastation of the tornado, I would be able to say that I did my job that night.
Hopefully, the photo of Sgt. Gabe Allen and Aspen Bowman did that job.