Sisters Melinda (left) and Sabrina Duncan

Sisters Melinda (left) and Sabrina Duncan pose with their grandmother, Sharon Duncan, on Monday morning at their home in Joplin. After Joplin High School graduation ceremonies Sunday, the three went to the Wal-Mart store on Range Line Road to pick up a celebratory cake, but instead found themselves buried inside their car in a pile of vehicles heaped up by the tornado.

Less than an hour before Sunday’s killer storm carved a river of misery through town and leveled Joplin High School in the process, 18-year-old Kasey Grant had stood before her classmates and exhorted them to cherish their memories and be thankful.

“Be excited,” Grant said in her speech. “The ride of your life is set to begin.”

But just minutes after the 455 newly minted graduates of Joplin High walked across the stage Sunday afternoon at the Leggett & Platt Athletic Center on the Missouri Southern State University campus, the tornado sirens began to scream. The destruction that followed would leave the graduates and their families shaken, if not worse, and may come to define the passage of this class to adulthood.

“It’s kind of hard to know what to feel,” said Grant, an 18-year-old who was invited to speak because she was among Joplin High’s top seniors. “Graduation is supposed to be a happy day, but it all quickly turned into this day full of devastation.”

About 60 percent of the district’s 7,747 students have been displaced by the storm, according to Superintendent C.J. Huff. The district had no word of student or staff deaths, Huff said, but he added that the welfare of only a fraction of students had been determined. He also said the district was checking into the possibility that some staff members may have been working off-hours at the high school or other district buildings.

“It was the scariest thing I’ve ever been around,” Huff said of the storm.

He remembered the mood at the graduation as “lighthearted.”

“The sirens went off just as I was walking to my car,” Huff said. “It was about 5:20.”

The arena, which has a capacity estimated at 6,000, was full or nearly so with relatives and well-wishers to see the largest Joplin High graduating class in years. Some stragglers were led to a basement shelter in the arena, but most of the audience members took to their cars — and many drove straight into the teeth of the storm.

Graduating sisters Melinda and Sabrina Duncan were in their grandmother’s car, on their way to Wal-Mart on 15th Street to pick up a graduation cake. They realized something was seriously wrong when they reached the store and found it was in a state of lockdown.

“The graduation was beautiful,” said the grandmother, Sharon Duncan. “But when it was over, we got sucked into a tornado.”

The trio took shelter in Sharon Duncan’s white Toyota Camry, which was soon being buffeted by debris and other cars. They saw the front of the Wal-Mart store dissolve, they said. Then all of the windows of the car blew out, exposing them to the wind and hail.

“There was hail, tree limbs and glass,” Sharon Duncan said. “Then we were buried among the other cars, and we had to crawl out through a window.”

The three suffered only scrapes and bruises.

“We were all holding hands,” said Sabrina Duncan, 17. “And we were praying.”

“I’ll always remember this,” said 18-year-old Melinda Duncan. “I survived my first tornado on the day I graduated.

‘It was awful’

The storm also found Grant, the speech-making top senior, in a car with her family. She said they received a call from an aunt who said they’d better take shelter quick, because she was watching the storm on television.

They took cover in a shelter at Northpark Mall.

“I was really scared, especially when we were in the storm shelter,” Grant said. The lights were flickering on and off. “People were crying and trying to call their families on their (cell) phones, but not getting through.”

Band director Rick Castor had made it all the way to his home at 11th Street and Mississippi Avenue when the storm hit.

“I was taking my shoes off,” he said. “I was on the phone with my mother, and I told her there was a tornado here. I knew as soon as I heard the sound. It sounded like a cross between a jet engine and a train, but the pitch didn’t change.”

Castor said he spent all Sunday night helping pull victims from the rubble.

“I saw more than I ever want to see in my life,” he said. “It was awful, and several of our kids are homeless now.”

Joplin High was built in 1957, Huff said, and underwent extensive renovation in the mid-1990s. He estimated the cost of replacing the building at $40 million to $50 million. The district was taking stock, Huff said, and struggling with the thought of starting school in three months less a high school and perhaps several other schools.

Huff, who has served three years as superintendent of Joplin’s schools, grew up in McCune, in Southeast Kansas, and said he was accustomed to the threat of severe weather. But, he said, he had never seen destruction on a scale that happened Sunday.

“Buildings can be rebuilt,” Huff said in a press release Monday morning. “Right now our main concern if for our children, families, and staff who have been affected by this tragedy. We ask that you keep this great community in your thoughts and prayers.”

Stewart Pence, another top senior who addressed the graduating class, said the storm only reinforced his message of gravity and remembrance.

“High school is short,” he said. “It seemed long at the time, but it was short. Especially now that we have friends whose houses are gone — I have a friend who is missing.”

Pence, an 18-year-old who said he’d like a career as a diplomat, urged his classmates to volunteer, to help out, to make a difference.

Grant — who plans to become a registered nurse — said she broke down and cried when she saw the rubble of the high school.

Asked what message she would have for her classmates now, Grant remained optimistic.

“We are going to make it through this,” she said. “While times may seem dark right now, there is hope. People (across the country) are helping. Everything will be fine. It just might take a while.”

The Leggett & Platt arena, where Sunday’s graduation took place, is now being used as an emergency shelter.

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