The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

June 4, 2011

VIDEO: Desperate moments as spotters watched storm build

By Carole Liston

JOPLIN, Mo. — It was 5:11 p.m. Sunday, May 22, when Joplin tornado sirens sounded for the first time.

Many people glanced at darkening clouds, made note of gray-green skies, perhaps even considered getting home a little sooner than otherwise planned.

But for many, there was no alarm. There was no panic. There was no sense of urgency.

Joplin, after all, is used to tornado sirens each spring.

Click here to see video shot by storm spotters.

This was business as usual for tornado season in Southwest Missouri.

But inside Jeff Piotrowski’s storm-chasing truck, it was anything but business as usual.

Piotrowski, a storm spotter from Tulsa, Okla., was tracking the May 22 storm with his wife, Kathryn.

As they drove into Joplin on Missouri Highway 171, the storm that at first appeared to be heading for northern Joplin shifted southwest. They hurried down Missouri Highway 43, down North Main Street, then swung west onto Seventh Street.

Inside the truck, storm data revealing winds of intense velocity streamed into Piotrowski’s computers from Doppler radars in Tulsa and Springfield through his connection to NEXRAD, a network of high-resolution weather radars located throughout the country and operated by the National Weather Service.

The stream of data showed a wind shear of more than 100 knots building inside the rain curtains — and climbing fast. That high wind shear doesn’t necessarily mean a tornado is forming on the ground, but it does indicate cyclonic weather in the skies.

Piotrowski grew alarmed, nervous.

When the Baron Tornado Index for the rain-wrapped storm began to accelerate rapidly, Piotrowski said his stomach tightened with fear.

That index is a computer model that helps weather spotters assess the probability of a tornado. It measures what is known as the Tornadic Vortex Signature, or TVS, a rotation algorithm detected by Doppler radar on the rear flank of a storm. It is used to detect and track possible tornadoes for purposes of warning communities to take cover. The index is measured on a scale of 0 to 10. The higher the number, the more likely a tornado is on the ground. Piotrowski watched Joplin’s BTI leap from a 4 to a 9.9 in less than two minutes.

Racing west on Seventh Street, he spotted the telltale signs of a large debris cloud forming around the “bowl” of the storm just two miles away.

One key indicator that a tornado is on the ground is the “debris cloud,” coupled with the TVS indications of high wind shear. The wind shear kept climbing rapidly above 100 knots now, moving quickly to 120 knots, then 130, then 140.

“All the parameters said something horrible is going to come into Joplin ... I knew something horrible was about to unfold right in front of me ... I couldn’t do anything about it,” Piotrowski said.

‘Get sirens going’

Piotrowski said he has been chasing storms for 35 years, and he has chased literally hundreds of tornadoes. Nothing prepared him for the explosiveness, or the intensity, of the May 22 monster. All he could think of was warning people.

He raced past Schifferdecker Avenue heading west on Seventh Street, looking for help while Kathryn attempted to get through to emergency services. Phone signals could not get through. The “bowl” of the storm had become a green-black rotating core, clearly in view, just two miles to the south and west, near Galena, Kan.

His wife kept the video camera rolling.

“I’ve got debris on the ground, I’ve got debris on the ground — right here!” Jeff can be heard hollering at one point.

Two policemen, storm spotting near Seventh Street and Black Cat Road, came into view. They were noting the deepening green tint coming from the refracted light of hail in the storm’s vortex as Piotrowski whipped up alongside their cars. He said he hoped and prayed their communications systems were intact.

“Guys!” he pointed frantically to the swirling vortex. “The tornados are trying to come down right here, the winds are on the north, and it’s coming back around — right here. Get the sirens going, get the sirens going, I’m telling you.”

The officers indicated they were indeed calling emergency services, and with that, Piotrowski made a U-turn and went back east on Seventh Street, taking a hard right on Schifferdecker, traveling south toward 20th Street — straight into the path of the coming storm.

It was about this time that the second alarm sounded. It can be heard on the video that Kathryn kept rolling.

Two weeks after the storm, there remain a lot of questions. Some scientists are wondering why so many people died, and what lessons can be extracted from the rubble. Others are wondering why so many people lived, given the power, width and length of time the tornado was on the ground.

Piotrowski believes the answer to the second question is that second siren.

Jose de Leon is one of many people living in Joplin who heard the storm sirens the first time. He was in his apartment at 2123 Rhode Island Ave., Unit 13. He saw the warnings on the evening news.

Officials had sounded the first alarm 30 minutes before the tornado hit the city limits.

“I had plenty of time,” he admitted. “I didn’t take it seriously.”

Piotrowski, who has been in Joplin interviewing witnesses and survivors, said many people told him a similar tale — they took note of the first siren, but didn’t take cover. The second siren got everyone’s attention. He said it was a “call to action.”

“People said that put them in the mind of ‘uh-oh.’ They took the second siren seriously. At that point, they knew something bad was going to happen.”

Keith Stammer, director of emergency management for Joplin and Jasper County, said that Sunday afternoon he was monitoring a number of sources, everything from weather reports to 911 calls. And on the ground, he started getting reports from spotters and police in the field, people such as Piotrowski.

Joplin doesn’t normally sound storm sirens more than once. Stammer said that’s because most tornadoes are “short-track, short-lived.”

Besides, sounding them twice can be dangerous: Some people interpret the second signal as an all clear.

On Sunday, he broke his rule.

“I decided to sound the alarms twice on Sunday,” he said. “We usually only sound them once. Most of our storms indicate they are an F-1 or F-2, and dissipate quickly. This one wasn’t going away, however, and all indicators and reporters in the field said it was strengthening.”

‘Stay with it ...’

“Stay with it Kathryn, stay with it Kathryn, we’re going right down toward it,” Piotrowski yelled as Kathryn videotaped their path and Jeff drove south on Schifferdecker toward 20th Street.

“Oh crap! Why are you doing that?” his wife yelled back.

“Because, we don’t have no other roads. It’s a large tornado, a maxi wedge on the ground.”

Back on the phone with emergency services, a woman responder picked up another call that the couple made.

“Ma’am, this is Jeff Piotrowski, storm chaser. I have a large destructive tornado, on the southwest side of Joplin. Notify! Notify! Large debris on the ground doing massive damage … going through the city.”

“Oh my God,” Piotrowski said, as clouds of destructive metal and shards of boards and signage were hurled to the ground and flying by his truck.

Piotrowski had unwittingly turned almost directly into the its path. He began speeding east on 20th Street, trying to stay ahead of the tornado.

“Going east, going east, right here,” Piotrowski narrates to a tape that was in danger of never being seen. He said it felt like the tornado was attempting to suck his truck into the storm.

Kathryn filmed in silence as they raced parallel to the giant storm’s path. The storm was south of them by just enough distance that they were not pulled in. Near 20th Street and Grand Avenue, north of Joplin High School, the couple watched a van with two women in it picked up and pushed through the air toward a pole.

“Back up!” Kathryn yells. Knowing that the angle at which the truck faces the wind increases their chances of survival.

“I am,” Piotrowski says, throwing the truck in reverse and positioning it for the storm.

Then, in hopes that the video will somehow make it even if he does not, Piotrowski states one last time, speaking to the tape: “It’s tearing up the entire city on the south side of Joplin right now … This is Jeff Piotrowski, storm chaser, and it’s a massive tornado doing massive destruction (voice breaks) right now on the south of Joplin. It’s at least a mile wide tornado, and it’s leveling the south side of Joplin right now.”

In the ruin

The monster flung debris into the air, causing the sky to rain, not just water, but splintered boards, twisted metal and fragments of glass.

The Piotrowskis quickly looked for the two women whose van they had last seen flying past. They found the women almost immediately, unharmed. The women had crawled out of their ruined van, able to walk. They mumbled something about a friend’s house nearby, ran down the street, and that’s the last the Piotrowskis saw of them.

The Piotrowskis turned their attention to the neighborhood near the high school, inching their own now-battered truck down Iowa Street, looking for survivors. When their truck met a barricade of twisted steel and could go no farther, they got out and walked. As the neighborhood came into full view, they were scarcely able to comprehend what they saw. Nothing was left standing.

An entire neighborhood — dozens of homes — had become scattered piles of rubble.

Then the houses began to cry.

Whimpers, at first, then sobs. Within moments those sobs became a choir of pleas for help and finally, screams of agony. These were the cries of surviving individuals, trapped in the splintered remains of their homes.

As first responders, the Piotrowskis were all the help that was immediately available.

Amber Munson, whose home had been at 2212 S. Iowa Ave., woke up face down in mud and thought she was under her house. She was not. Her house had been leveled to its foundation and the fiberglass tub that had been her refuge moments before was now blown so far away, it would never be seen again.

But when rain and hail began hitting the back of her head, Munson realized she was not under the house at all, but out in the yard instead. She wiggled her way out of the tangled lumber, tested each of her limbs, and discovered they all worked. As she freed herself, she heard neighbors, crying for help.

“Ours was a ‘Norman Rockwell’ neighborhood,” Munson said afterward. “We watched high school ballgames together. We walked our dogs together. I knew who lived in each house.”

Her attention was quickly drawn to a nearby group home, where three men with permanent disabilities lived under the supervision of two caretakers. Someone was screaming loudly from that direction.

Munson made her way to that home and found three figures lying on top of a foundation, each of them stripped bare. One was motionless, one was swollen and moaning, the third bleeding and crying out in pain. Munson felt helpless, but compelled to do something. She comforted the injured men and scanned the horizon for anyone who could help. Nothing. Other neighbors were crying to be set free, but she could not bring herself to leave the three men alone.

‘My guardian angels’

Then, she saw the Piotrowskis.

“It was like a scene out of a movie,” Munson said. ‘The Piotrowskis were my guardian angels.” Munson told the injured men that she would get help and ran toward them.

Jeff spotted Munson running toward them, crying, and breathed a sigh of relief. One person, at least, was alive and unharmed.

“Are you all right? Where are we? What neighborhood is this?” he asked Munson.

“We’re behind Joplin High School. There’s some disabled guys that really need your help, right over there,” Munson pointed.

Jeff sent another urgent request for EMT assistance, with coordinates to Joplin High School added as a location. He then ran to the group home. Kathryn escorted Munson back to the truck.

When Jeff arrived at the group home, his first-responder training kicked in, giving method to chaos. He checked for a pulse in the man lying still; there was none. He moved on to the second man, who had a severe head injury. He could not be safely moved without assistance. Neither could the third. The best Jeff could do was give them comfort, covering and words of hope. His throat tightened and he fought back tears as he moved on.

At the next house Jeff found a woman trapped in her wheelchair, laying upside down and backward, clutching two pet carriers, covered in debris. He dug her out of the debris by hand, but she begged him not to move her.

“I think my neck is broken,” she said.

A second woman was in the home. He also dug her free, and she too asked to be left in place until emergency workers arrived. Her arm was severely injured.

It was then that he noticed a few other people helping.

A large black dog paced frantically on the fallen house next door, barking loudly. Piotrowski knew instantly that the dog’s owner was trapped below.

He yelled into the wreckage and heard an answer. Following the sound of the voice, he carefully uncovered the dog’s owner, and pulled him out. The man was dirty, but basically unharmed.

A woman’s legs were sticking out from the debris in the next house. Both men now worked together to dig her out. She was an elderly woman, still alive, though embedded in mud. After freeing her, they wiped the debris from her face with their hands so she could more easily see and breathe.

A few more people had joined in the search.

No emergency vehicles had yet arrived, but the rescue was growing. Relatives and friends were coming now; some on foot, others driving across the high school athletic fields to Iowa Street.

Jeff breathed a sigh of relief. They were no longer alone.

Kathryn found more blankets and covered other injured people. “There was a man bleeding from his ears, white as a sheet, just wandering,” Kathryn said. “I sat him down, hugged him and gave him a blanket. I told him he would be OK.”

‘Joplin Needs Help’

Munson was also helping now, alongside Kathryn, together doing what they could to help the hurting, sometimes stopping to give each other a hug.

As teams of volunteer rescuers began driving people off to hospitals on makeshift stretchers in pickup trucks, Jeff resumed attempts to call emergency vehicles to the scene, but phone lines over Joplin were down or jammed.

Using an Internet card on his laptop, he was finally able to get a call through to his friend Steve Piltz, head meteorologist and director of the National Weather Service station in Tulsa.

Steve answered.

“We are in a state of emergency, Steve. Joplin needs help. A massive tornado, at least an EF-4, maybe an EF-5 touched down here. Massive damage, massive injuries. Need ambulances. Can Oklahoma send any? Can you send 100 of them?”

Piltz looked at the radar and saw the debris cloud. “Oh my God,” he said. The debris clouds on the radar image were enormous.

“You got it Jeff. I’m on it,” Piltz replied.

Piltz sent the storm chaser report immediately. Within 15 minutes of the call, Task Force I Search and Rescue teams from both Oklahoma and Arkansas were dispatched and on their way to Joplin.

Jeff could breathe again, and stop counting. Help was coming, more was on the way.

‘Part of Joplin’

Throughout their work as storm chasers — 35 years, hundreds of tornadoes — the Piotrowskis had never seen anything like this. No storm has affected them emotionally more than any other storm they have tracked in their entire storm-chasing career, Jeff said.

“We became part of Joplin that night,” Kathryn said. “We will never be the same.”