JOPLIN, Mo. —
Her son was not there Friday, but Pam Praytor made sure his spirit was.
“He loved his job,” she said. “He loved the cooking. He loved the driving. That’s why I’m a greeter here today. I wanted to be here for him because he would have been very excited that they have come back.’’
Her Pizza Hut name tag read: “Chris Lucas — Management.’’
From inside the restaurant’s walk-in cooler, 27-year-old Christopher Lucas grabbed a cord or a rope, and tried to hold the door shut against the 200 mph winds of the May 22 tornado. He would lose his life saving others. The tornado flattened the Pizza Hut.
Also killed at the restaurant were Gregan D. Sweet, 59, of Joplin; Carolane Collins, 62, of Eagle Rock; Lois Comfort, 66, of Webb City, and Kayleigh Teal, 16, of Pittsburg, Kan., another Pizza Hut employee who was trying to help Lucas.
Praytor was on hand Friday morning for a ribbon-cutting ceremony to reopen the Pizza Hut at 1901 S. Range Line Road.
Praytor thought her son was delivering pizza when the tornado struck. She figured he would be able to see it coming and drive out of its way to some place safe. She did not know until later that day that he had been at the restaurant and that his body had been recovered on the parking lot of the Aldi grocery store.
“We just miss him,” she said. “I am proud of what he did that day, but I just want him back. Today is very bittersweet,’’ Praytor said. “But I got to say goodbye to him that day. He loved to fish. He came by with some fish to clean. We spent four hours together before he died. I got to say goodbye to him.’’
Praytor said her son, had he lived, would have been able to see his new daughter, Anna Belle Chris Erin Lucas, who was born on Sept. 16.
“I have put together a scrapbook for her of all the stories and things that have been said about Chris,’’ she said. “I have a videodisc of the president’s speech. I was there for that speech. When (President Barack Obama) started talking about Chris, I thought, how does he know about my son? I could not believe it.
“I will show the scrapbook and video to her some day. This is what your daddy did.’’
Praytor said NPC International Inc., the world’s largest Pizza Hut franchisee, has created an award in her son’s name.
“It’s the Chris Lucas Courage and Service Award,” she said. “It’s for managers who have went above the call. It feels so good. NPC has done so much for us.’’
Both of NPC’s restaurants on Main Street and Range Line Road were in the path of the tornado.
“Reopening these two restaurants is very bittersweet,” said Jim Schwartz, president of NPC International. “While we are excited to open these two new great-looking restaurants, it also reminds us of the tragedy from just one year ago. I am incredibly proud of our team members for the strength, perseverance and respect they have shown throughout this re-building process.”
Rob O’Brian, president of the Joplin Area Chamber of Commerce, said Pizza Hut has roots in Joplin that extend back 40 years. He said Pizza Hut’s commitment to return so quickly is an example of the strength of Joplin’s business community. Pizza Hut, he said, is among more than 400 returning businesses.
Deedra Biggers, now manager of the Carthage Pizza Hut, was working with Lucas the night of the tornado. She survived in the cooler.
“I did not see it coming,” she said. “Chris and I had stepped outside to call our families about the storm. We thought it was going to the north. I remember seeing him talking to a man on the parking lot who was from Florida. Chris wanted him to come inside. He wanted to stay outside to see the storm.
“The next thing I remember is Chris saying: ‘It’s here — run.’ I told people in the kitchen to get into the cooler. We did not have a lot of reaction time.
“Then, the building exploded all at once. There was nothing.’’
Biggers said it was her understanding that the man from Florida did not survive.
Biggers, who has three small children, said she and Lucas were planning to take their children fishing.
“When I think of Chris, I think of his smile and a guy who really liked to fish,’’ she said. “I remember how we held onto each other to keep from flying out of the cooler. What he did that night did not surprise me at all. He was that kind of guy.’’
The company has placed plaques inside and outside of the restaurant that read: “In remembrance of our Pizza Hut family and friends lost in the Joplin tornado of May 22, 2011. We will never forget.’’
JOPLIN, Mo. —
Her son was not there Friday, but Pam Praytor made sure his spirit was.
- May 2011 Joplin tornado
Farmers Insurance extends tornado recovery commitment
After investments that included stationing a company executive in Joplin for eight months last year, officials with Farmers Insurance said the company will continue its post-tornado commitment to Joplin in 2014. “We’re going to stay until the end,” said Doris Dunn, director of community relations for the company, on Wednesday. “That includes sending in another 100-plus volunteers and making some additional financial investments.”
- SLIDESHOW: One year later, One day of unity, updated Photos from a day of events commemorating the May 22, 2011 tornado anniversary
Author prepares for release of children’s book featuring heroic Joplin rescue dog
Carolyn Mueller is both a dog lover and a storyteller. So when she got the opportunity to write a story about a Joplin dog named Lily who helped search for survivors after the May 2011 tornado, she jumped on it. “Dogs like Lily can be heroes, too,” she said.
VIDEO: Lost photos claim day to be held at museum
National Disaster Photo Rescue and the Joplin Museum Complex have scheduled a public viewing and photo claim day for 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 22, at the museum complex in Schifferdecker Park. The project, originally known as Lost Photos of Joplin, was organized in the weeks after the May 22, 2011, Joplin tornado to reunite storm victims with photos displaced by the storm.
Building-permit total since tornado nears $1 billion
The building of new homes in Joplin continues at an average pace of 16 to 18 per month, according to a building permit report released for December by the city of Joplin. Eighteen building permits for new homes were issued in both November and December. In fiscal year 2013, permits for new homes averaged more than 16 per month.
FEMA official recognized by city
A retiring official of the Federal Emergency Management Agency who directed much of that agency’s response to Joplin’s 2011 tornado was recognized Friday by the city of Joplin. Richard Serino, the deputy administrator of FEMA, was presented a proclamation by Mayor Melodee Colbert-Kean during his last visit to Joplin before he retires on Jan. 23.
Two Joplin men sentenced to two years for tornado fraud
Two Joplin men convicted in separate incidents of disaster fraud related to the May 22, 2011, tornado on Monday were sentenced to two years in federal prison and ordered to pay restitution. Andy Eric Brownlee, 32, was ordered by U.S. District Judge Brian C. Wimes. to pay $2,750 in restitution, and Leslie Lynn Williams, 54, was ordered to pay $1,196 in restitution.
Tornado fund board hears grant requests
Trustees of the Joplin Tornado First Response Fund heard proposals Tuesday from 11 organizations for grant funding. The board is to decide how to spend about $225,000 remaining in the fund in what may be the final round of grants. The fund was established shortly after the 2011 tornado to receive donations from those who wanted to give direct aid to Joplin for recovery.
Joplin community publishes book of tornado experiences
Leaders in the Joplin community have published a collection of stories about the 2011 tornado and the recovery efforts that followed. First-hand accounts for the book, titled “Joplin Pays It Forward,” were written by city and school leaders; officials from health care centers and public utility companies; leaders in the business and media communities; representatives of churches and nonprofit organizations; and individuals with federal, state and local disaster relief groups and agencies.
New fire stations being readied for opening
After 2 1/2 years in temporary quarters as a result of the 2011 Joplin tornado, firefighter crews are moving into newly built replacement stations ahead of schedule. Firefighters last week began preparing a new Station No. 2 at 2825 W. Junge Blvd. for occupancy. It replaces a station at 2216 S. Maiden Lane that was destroyed in the tornado.
- More May 2011 Joplin tornado Headlines
- Farmers Insurance extends tornado recovery commitment