Part one: The Joplin tornado through a coroner’s eyes
One year ago, the Joplin tornado transformed Rob Chappel, the Jasper County coroner. Accustomed to working anonymously, he was suddenly called upon to be the man in the middle of chaos and grief. Now he’s finally ready to share his story.
05/19/2012 5:00 AM
05/16/2014 6:31 PM
Rob Chappel had done the job hundreds of times before.
Car crash, drug overdose, homicide or suicide — he’s the guy who certifies death in Jasper County. He investigates the cause, helps identify the victim and releases the body to the family.
But he’d never been responsible for more than two bodies at one time.
Not until May 22, 2011.
For many in Joplin, the deadliest U.S. tornado in six decades lasted 20 minutes. For Chappel and those who came to claim the dead, the tragedy would drag out for nearly two agonizing weeks.
It would be a defining moment for a man with a lifetime of death experience and a southwest Missouri community that barely knew the name of its county coroner.
Chappel would see more bodies in the first few hours than he usually sees in an entire month. More in the first day than he works in six months. And the numbers would keep rising.
A local boy since the fourth grade, Chappel, now 40, would see the human toll of the tornado like no one else. He would handle frantic calls from mothers, husbands and wives who just wanted to know whether their loved ones’ bodies were at the morgue. He would take heat as a temporary villain, accused of prolonging families’ pain by not releasing the dead for days, some even more than a week.
He would see the body of a woman he knew well, a woman he worked with on occasion and went to lunch with. And he would struggle with a misstep, one he likens to a slap in the face from God, telling him he needed to do better.
Before the storm, he was the man on the outside. He worked anonymously in his little corner of the world, and he liked it that way.
Nature changed that. In the tornado’s wake, he was pulled front and center for family briefings, yelled at by those who wanted what he felt he couldn’t give: their loved ones. In his own words, he became “the lousy coroner who was holding things up, who won’t give me my mom, my son, my wife.”
Still today, he knows some people in the county may bump into him and cringe a little. In him they see a living reminder of what they lost that day.
And yet he understands. He has spent more than half his life working around death, helping his dad with his casket-selling business as a teen and later buying him out. For years he has talked with grieving families, keyed into their pain somehow.
The grief here is no different, just on a far greater scale. He couldn’t blame people for being upset. If it were his daughter, his son, he’d be shouting right along with them.
But he stood firm that what he was doing, the meticulous process he was using to identify the dead, was the right thing. He couldn’t sacrifice thoroughness.
Their pain, though, still ate at him.
Until now, Chappel has never shared his story, never detailed what he experienced that night and in the weeks after. It was too early, too raw.
As the city marks the anniversary of the disaster, he thinks it’s time. He wants to explain why he did what he did.
How in the community’s worst moments — on that Sunday last May and in the days immediately after — he tried to do the best he could for the people who died and for those they left behind.
May 22, 2011
The afternoon is near-perfect, sunny but not too hot. In the Chappel household, though, the weather is weighing on Rob and wife Kristy.
Meteorologists have been talking about looming bad weather for a couple of days, and Kristy, who grew up in Oklahoma, has learned to heed forecasts.
So they’re thinking about the weather even as they prepare an egg casserole for dinner and while their four kids play in the family pool, and later as they hurry to the movie store in Webb City so they can get back before the bad weather hits.
Though they won’t be able to remember which movie they rented, they won’t forget getting home just in time to hear storm sirens cycle up in the distance.
The Chappels live on 60 acres northwest of Joplin, but they can always hear the sirens as they roll across the countryside and echo through a nearby neighborhood.
The six head for the basement. Soon the electricity is out, and the two boys go for the battery-powered radio. They know the drill.
When a tornado hit the area in May 2003, Rob and Kristy had just brought home their younger daughter from the hospital. When tornados struck a neighboring county in 2008, killing 14 people, Rob was deputy coroner and helped Newton County Coroner Mark Bridges gather and identify the victims.
The Chappels can hear the wind outside, the hail pummeling their vinyl siding. But when they emerge from the basement, there’s only minor damage.
From the radio traffic, though, it sounds like people in Joplin might have gotten it a lot worse.
If they need me, they’d call, right?
The question hangs in his head as he waits for some official word of what’s happened in Joplin. The radio buzzes with sketchy reports of damage, but Rob’s phone is silent. Soon he punches the numbers for emergency dispatchers and the Sheriff’s Department.
The calls don’t go through. He tries all the back numbers he knows. Nothing.
After about an hour, he turns to Kristy.
“I better just run in and check on things,” he says.
He heads into Joplin from the north. It’s almost idyllic: the trees untouched, the roads shiny and wet, the sun peeking out from the weakening clouds.
He wonders whether he should have just stayed home.
The radio keeps him going, though. More details now: St. John’s, one of the city’s two hospitals, has been hit. Home Depot, too. Yet he’s learned over the years that things can get exaggerated inside a smaller community.
At the emergency operations center — “ground zero” for the city’s disaster response — he sees more cars than there should be for a Sunday night. Most of the city’s leaders are here, and some from the county.
He parks and gets out of his truck, though the details a year later are blurry. He doesn’t remember who approached him, but he remembers the words.
“Rob, it’s bad.”
The cooler at his office will hold six bodies.
It won’t be enough. He can tell that already as he looks at the map of the storm’s path.
He’ll need refrigerated trucks. A temporary morgue. He knows that bodies start decomposing immediately. The clock is ticking.
Rounding up refrigerator trucks, that’ll take time. But they do have space to hold bodies at Bethany Presbyterian Church, a brick building at 20th and Main.
By the time Chappel gets there and walks down five steps into the darkness of the church basement, a woman’s body is already lying on the floor in the center of the room. No name. No note. Just a body. His first casualty from the storm.
A thin blanket covers her. He likes that someone did that, protecting her in a way.
Chappel has been the county coroner for just 21/2 years, and the deputy coroner for four years before that.
Treat every body with care and respect, he’s learned. They’re not just contents in a body bag, but loved ones.
In the hours and days to come, that sentiment replays in his mind as the little things, like holding a body delicately or making sure it’s laid in a straight line, are the most dignity and respect he can give them.
But for now, his problem is this first temporary morgue he’s working in. It won’t do. At least not for long.
The church is too dark. The power in this part of town is out and will be for a while. The space is too cramped. You can’t carry bodies in and out with ease. And in the parking lot? Downed power lines lie exposed.
But a solution will have to wait. A pickup truck wheels into the lot. A woman’s body lies in the truck bed.
“We found her at the house,” the middle-age man says calmly. “In the window.”
She is his mother. When he went to check on her after the storm, he found her folded over a window sill.
Looks like the tornado sucked her halfway out of the house, he tells the coroner.
Chappel has never been a real believer in personal IDs when it comes to identifying a body. Too much room for error. And he doesn’t know it now, but in the coming days he’ll come to question them even more.
But at this point, in a natural disaster the scale of which he’s never seen, he can find no reason to doubt the man. He’s specific, matter of fact — a rock in what’s become a sea of chaos.
“Do you know what funeral home you want to use?” Chappel asks the son. The man plans to take his mom to Parker’s, one of three funeral homes in town.
Chappel scribbles down names and information he’ll need and watches the pickup pull away.
The taillights are barely out of view when two more trucks pull up.
Missouri Highway Patrol Cpl. Brad Bearden is on Seventh Street, trying to maneuver his way to St. John’s Regional Medical Center.
It’s too soon after the storm, and the wreckage — downed trees and power lines, jumbled mounds of twisted wood and shredded metal — is everywhere. No way he can make it to the hospital.
Only a couple of hours before, the things he sees now were unimaginable.
The 15-year patrol veteran was enjoying a Sunday off, playing with his kids in the front yard of his Neosho home, oblivious to the catastrophe playing out 25 miles to the north.
Though he’s assigned to criminal investigations and occasionally gets called in on Sundays, when the phone rang it wasn’t the patrol but his mom in Springfield. She’d heard the reports of a direct hit to St. John’s and damage across Joplin.
No need for another call. He changed clothes and headed north toward the town — like so many troopers and police officers and paramedics did — only to become mired in this maze of storm debris and traffic.
Bearden steers his pickup down one street until it’s blocked by an obstacle. He backs up and tries another route, but it’s blocked, too.
Knowing others are headed to the heavily damaged hospital, he stops when he sees a makeshift triage center on Rangeline Road. Ambulance crews are shouting for help.
They’ve just found Sharyl Nelsen, who had stayed to work late at a now-destroyed AT store. She can’t be saved. The paramedics need to tend to the injured, so Bearden offers to collect her body.
He and another man place her and five more bodies in the bed of the man’s truck and head toward Bethany Presbyterian and the county coroner.
“We have bodies,” Bearden says to Chappel, a man he’d never met before. “ What else can we do?”
The men unload the victims, as the enormity of what they’re seeing sinks in. Seven bodies already. And rescue crews are still going strong, combing neighborhoods and streets for survivors and collecting the dead. Soon they’ll have to stop for the night.
Chappel knows he doesn’t have enough body bags even for this first group. Why would he? He carries only four or five in his vehicle, enough to cover two typical weeks, if not three.
No telling how many he’ll need tonight.
Soon, without being asked, funeral directors from across the region start arriving with armloads of bags. One director brings 45. They ask how else they can help.
Chappel has never held so many body bags at one time.
How bad will this night get?
He hears Bearden’s police radio crackle with more news. And an answer to his question.
Five more bodies on the east side. Three or four more across town.
In the darkness at day’s end, bodies no longer go to the church but instead to the lower parking lot outside the football stadium at Missouri Southern State University, on Joplin’s northeast side. It’s big enough. There’s some light. Not what they truly need, but enough.
With Bearden and others gone for more victims, Chappel stands there alone, full body bags not far from his feet.
His eyes are drawn to the street 100 feet away. A parade of Greene County sheriff’s patrol cars — lights flashing but no sirens — streams toward the stadium lot.
Here comes the cavalry
So many cars, nearly 60, that it seems to take 10 minutes for all of them to pull into the lot.
Out front is Jim Arnott, who has been Greene County sheriff as long as Chappel has been coroner. Ten years before being elected his county’s top cop, Arnott was a go-to detective in Greene County’s criminal division. He has processed multiple bodies from a single scene and has been trained in cataloging. His expertise will be critical.
Chappel knows he’s in over his head. He won’t deny that he feels overwhelmed.
A county coroner isn’t required to be a medical professional and doesn’t even have to have law enforcement experience. Anyone can run for the position. Once elected, a coroner takes in-service training on death investigations.
A moment like this, a natural disaster of historic proportions, with young children and neighbors among the rising number of dead, isn’t something a county coroner signs up for. Or at least what he imagines he’s signing up for.
But help is coming from all over. And a story his grandpa used to tell from his time in the Army would guide Chappel.
A major once assigned his grandpa to daunting tasks, outside his expertise.
“Can you do that?” the major asked.
Grandpa answered: “If I can’t, I’ll find someone who can, sir.”
And in Joplin, that’s what Chappel does. He calls for a federal mortuary team, with equipment and specialists the state doesn’t have. He’ll have the help of the medical examiner from Kansas City, Mary Dudley. Criminal investigators from across the region. And early on, on that crucial first night, the Sheriff’s Department from Greene County. Those deputies are the first to arrive in force. More will soon follow.
“What do you need?” Arnott asks Chappel.
Most of his deputies will fan out across town. But some, including Arnott, will stay, unzipping every body bag, making a list of what’s inside, from the gender and estimated age of the person to clothing, belongings. If a man had a tattoo, they catalog that. Piercings and scars, too. Sometimes those can be crucial in the identification process.
A rookie deputy works with Arnott. What he’s seeing inside some of these bags — the amputations, the trauma to heads and torsos, the gore — is something deputies many years his senior have yet to experience in their careers. The sheriff urges his deputy to take a break, but he refuses. Twice.
The sheriff will always remember the young man’s words:
“This is the most important job I’ve ever done, and I’m going to stay with you until it’s done.”
As new bodies come in, those delivering them wait their turns. No one talks. No one discusses the devastation, the cries for help they’ve heard or the crippling grief they’ve seen across town. They gently lay each body down, forming straight rows.
By the end of the night, Chappel stands staring at an array of black bags, each numbered with fluorescent orange paint, 1 to 89.
He sees not bags, or mere bodies, but loved ones.
How many more will come?
A feeling of compassion floods over him. This job is his. The responsibility lies with him.
He feels the need, the pressure, to do it right.
I’ll be the one having to answer for everything a year from now.
No mistakes. This is too big.
TOMORROW: A serious mistake leads to a decision that will breed frustration for many families.
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