JOPLIN, Mo. —
“Mom, it’s getting really windy,” is what Ericka Mickus had to say the first time she called her mother at work late that afternoon.
Katherine Gray, a unit secretary in the emergency room at Freeman Hospital West, advised her 19-year-old daughter to gather their dogs, grab a flashlight and get to an interior hallway of their home on Chris Lane.
“That’s where we’ve always gone whenever we’ve heard tornado warnings,” Gray explained during a recent interview.
Their story is similar to the harrowing accounts of members of many other families who found themselves separated when a killer tornado struck the city May 22. All sought assurance of one another’s survival in the aftermath, some with grateful outcomes and others not.
The stories are all the more remarkable when one considers how many ordinary residents, like Gray, were able to resume their jobs and tend to the welfare of others within minutes of receiving assurance of their own family’s safety.
PANIC IN VOICE
Just after Gray ended that first phone conversation with her daughter, a normally laid-back hospital security guard came hustling through the ER, warning everyone that indeed a tornado was coming. Gray could hear the panic in his voice, she said.
“So I called her back and I said, ‘Ericka, get in the closet,’ and she said, ‘Mom, it’s full of stuff,’ and I said, ‘Throw it out,’ and I said, ‘Do it now,’” Gray said. “And she told me she loved me because she always does, and then we disconnected.”
The lights went out in Freeman’s ER as their call was dropped, and the hospital’s backup generator kicked in, Gray said. The twister soon took that out as well, and suddenly nothing seemed to be working in the ER except a few emergency lights. All the desk phones were down, and cellphones seemed to be useless as well.
Then one of the land-line phones rang at the ER desk, and Gray picked it up. It was Ericka again.
“She was in the closet,” Gray said. “She said it was raining on her. The ceiling was gone. The roof. And she was telling me that she loved me and she could hear it coming back.”
Gray believes the front of the tornado had passed and the inside of the vortex was overhead, with the back of the twister still bearing down on their home, although her daughter thought at the time that a second tornado was coming.
Ericka, who had her sister’s Chihuahua under one arm and was holding the closet door shut with her other hand, started screaming that she was going to die. Her mother froze. She could not find the words to assure her daughter otherwise. Another unit secretary, Bev Hankins, sensed her co-worker’s panic and grabbed Gray by the face.
“I said: ‘Look at me, Katherine. Katherine, you have got to calm down,’” Hankins told the Globe in an interview.
‘GO. JUST GO’
About this time, the ER charge nurse, Leslie Allen, stepped in and told Gray that she could leave if she needed to do so.
“Go. Just go,” Gray remembers Allen telling her.
Hankins, Allen and Debbie Fitzgerald, a counselor with the Ozark Center who happened to be in the ER, kept the phone conversation going with Ericka as Gray ran to her truck in the parking lot.
“She (Ericka) just kept saying, ‘I don’t think I’m going to make it; I don’t think I’m going to make it,’” Hankins recalled. “And I kept saying, ‘Yes, you are. Your mother’s on the way.’”
There’s not much of that trip home in her truck that Gray remembers. Turning up Main Street from 32nd Street and having to turn around and go back. Heading farther east on 32nd Street, and then north and again into the tornado’s path, where she saw several stricken people on the ground along the way. Dodging downed power lines and debris in the streets with her truck, she finally made her way to Chris Lane off Connecticut Avenue near 15th Street.
Parking the truck outside their demolished home, running up to the front door and finding her entry blocked by fallen rubble. Pushing and squeezing her way inside, surprised to find the couple who live behind her already there, working to free Ericka from the closet after hearing her cries for help and entering the home through a collapsed back wall.
Gray joining them in clearing the debris away from the closet door and pulling it open, just enough to see Ericka’s blood-covered face, cause for fresh concern shooting through the mother. Eventually getting the door open enough to free her daughter and realizing then that she was OK, that the blood was just from a nosebleed she had suffered when the tornado first approached and her ears popped.
What was coming
“Of course, I hugged her and I didn’t want to let her go,” Gray recalled. “I can’t thank my neighbors enough because they were there to calm her down.”
Gray then picked up her younger daughter at Cheddar’s, where the two sisters work, and took both of them to a friend’s house before returning to her shift at the hospital.
“I had been out there, and I knew what was going to be coming,” she said of her reasons for returning to work.
Gray had been on the job since 6:30 a.m. that Sunday, and she would not leave until 3:30 a.m. the following day as the disabling of St. John’s Regional Medical Center brought the brunt of the emergency medical response to the tornado down hard on Freeman.
The unit secretary assisted doctors and nurses in setting up and running a triage area that extended into the parking lot of the hospital. The 41-bed ER was so crowded with the injured that it was difficult to move, Gray said. She helped record their names and kept track of where they all were on a board.
She said her most rewarding moment came when she was able to help an apprehensive elderly man she found out in the lobby to see his two injured grandsons, who had lost their parents in the storm.
Two weeks later
ERICKA MICKUS, whose mother helped free her from the rubble of their home after the May 22 tornado, does not like talking about the storm, her mother told the Globe. Katherine Gray said her daughter remains eager to get the tornado behind them.
“SHE DIDN’T EVEN WANT anything out of our old place,” Gray said. “She just wants to start over.”