A few months before a tornado wiped out a wide swath of this southwest Missouri town and killed so many, Tammy Niederhelman had a conversation with her son.
She remembers that she and Zachary, 12, talked about a girl who had died. Niederhelman told her son that when she was growing up, her small school would leave a chair empty at high school graduation for students who had died so they would be recognized as part of the class.
Niederhelman remembers her son saying, “Well, I would hope that somebody would want me to have a seat at graduation.”
Those words, she said, have fueled her in recent months.
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Zachary Williams would have been in Joplin High School’s class of 2016. But he died as a seventh-grader, one of 161 people killed by the EF5 tornado that hit the city’s west edge on May 22, 2011, and ripped through town, destroying businesses, apartment buildings and thousands of homes.
He was killed a month before his 13th birthday, leaving his family to miss all the moments that come in those teenage years. First day of high school. First date. Driving. Prom.
What his mom wanted for graduation — which is scheduled for May 22, the fifth anniversary of the tornado — was a seat saved for her son. She and her husband, Zachary’s stepdad, thought they would buy a cap and gown to drape over it. Maybe the announcer could call his name as a member of the class, just as they did when she was growing up, and as some schools still do.
But it’s not going to happen for Zachary. Joplin High denied Niederhelman’s request, saying the school by tradition marks a moment of silence for students who died in their high school years.
“I was kind of floored,” Niederhelman said. “I wasn’t expecting that. It’s not like I wanted to give a eulogy. We just wanted a chair, a chair for Zach.”
Her push led to a petition on Change.org signed by nearly 6,000 people. Many shared their frustrations with the school for not granting Niederhelman’s request.
“If the graduation ceremony doesn’t have the time or space to honor this child’s life and pay respect to his parents, then we have another tragedy in Joplin,” wrote a local woman. “It’s shameful to deny such a small sacrifice that could mean so much. Give this family respect.”
A St. Louis woman said her daughter was graduating this year and the school would be honoring a classmate who took his own life. She couldn’t understand why Joplin High wouldn’t honor Zachary.
“Shame on you Joplin schools,” she wrote.
Principal Kerry Sachetta chooses his words carefully when he explains his decision. He knows the pain Joplin has endured the past five years, and he knows Niederhelman still hurts.
The tornado killed seven students from Joplin schools and one staff member. A student in the class of 2013 was one of the seven, and for him there was a moment of silence at graduation.
Sachetta has been principal at the high school for 14 years. In that time, he said, there’s never been an empty chair at graduation, and no middle school student has been recognized alongside graduating seniors.
“I think what people are missing, the people who are posting and are upset, they may not think we’re doing anything. But we are,” Sachetta said. “… The question was how.
“He was always going to have a place in our graduation from the start.”
‘Mama, I’m so scared’
On that Sunday in 2011, Niederhelman was working as a nurse’s aide in the intensive care unit at Freeman Hospital, one of two hospitals that serve the Joplin area.
Forecasters had predicted the storm. But nobody predicted the devastation Joplin would see.
As the storm neared, Niederhelman called home. The first sirens had sounded and she reminded Zachary of what he needed to do if a second round came.
In southwest Missouri, where tornado sirens in the spring can be as common as pop-up showers, they had talked about the drill: Climb into the bathtub and cover yourself with pillows.
Niederhelman knew Zachary would be safe. Her husband, Tony, was home, even if he’d be sleeping before going to his second-shift job. Plus, from what she could see from the southeast windows of the ICU, the storm didn’t look so bad. Just rain. She didn’t know what was forming in the west.
The seventh-grader called his mom after the second sirens. He was crying.
“Mama, I’m so scared,” he told her. “It looks real bad.”
She reassured him. “Bubba, Mama will be home in an hour and a half. … Don’t worry. This happens all the time.”
Still, Niederhelman called to wake her husband and ask him to check on Zachary. Tony Niederhelman found his stepson sitting on the toilet lid holding a flashlight, a cellphone and two pillows. He made sure the boy got in the tub and was covered.
“I’ll see what it looks like outside,” Tony Niederhelman told Zachary. “And I’ll be right back.”
Outside the front door, he saw nothing but rain. Then he went to the back. As he started to open the sliding glass door, he saw trees slamming to the ground. Before he could get back to Zachary, the monstrous winds blew in the windows and sucked Niederhelman out through the glass door.
At Freeman, staffers thought it was just a typical spring storm until word came that St. John’s Regional Medical Center had been hit. Injured people flooded into Freeman, delivered from pickup beds or walking through the front door with the help of strangers.
Some came in stunned by what they had seen. Niederhelman listened to their words: “Everything’s gone. All gone.”
Niederhelman couldn’t reach her family on the phone. Lines were down across town. And she knew she couldn’t leave the hospital.
She asked someone about the tornado’s path. Where was the damage? Her home was right in the middle of it.
It would be a few hours before she knew the exact horror that had played out. She searched for her husband and son and couldn’t find them. Back at the hospital, she got a call from another nurse saying Tony was there with extensive cuts and bruises.
Doctors at first thought Tony’s injuries weren’t serious until they discovered that he, like other tornado victims, had suffered a rare fungal infection. That condition, which occurred when dirt became embedded under the skin, infected part of his scalp, and he was in and out of hospitals for months.
As for Zachary, it would be a few days before he was identified as one of the victims.
In the days that followed, Niederhelman’s story of uncertainty and eventual loss was told across the country. The anguish on her face as she held her son’s picture and picked through what was left of her home is one of the storm’s lasting images.
She knows her son will be remembered as one of the 161 victims. But she insists that the storm shouldn’t define him. Especially when it comes to the day when he would have stood alongside about 450 fellow classmates to receive his diploma.
“They all make this about the tornado,” Niederhelman said. “But if Zach would have died from a car accident or cancer, I would still want him to have that seat. They keep making it about the tornado, but it’s not.”
As high schools across the country prepare for spring graduations, leaders grapple with how to honor students who died too young. Sometimes it’s a reserved seat, or a name announced, or even a family member accepting a diploma.
In May 2010, Alta Vista Charter High School in Kansas City put a cap and gown on an empty seat for Nelson Hopkins Jr., who had been fatally shot six months before. His father said a few words at the graduation.
“We’re a pretty small school and everyone knows each other,” principal Ed Mendez said.
Some schools have a set practice. Others take it case by case. Still more don’t recognize fallen students, regardless of how they died.
In 2013, a photo went viral of a high school graduation that reserved a seat for a student who had died of cancer in the eighth grade. Last May, after a student in Pennsylvania died in a wreck days before graduation, his mother walked across the stage to receive his diploma.
After Niederhelman first approached Sachetta, he spoke with teachers, principals at other schools, parents and as many as 30 students, including several who knew Zachary from his time at two Joplin middle schools.
Some of the schools had no set policy. One didn’t offer any recognition at all.
“I think every school has their own way of dealing with things,” Sachetta said. “Is there a right or wrong way? I’m not sure there is. It depends on what their traditions and practice are.”
Some Joplin students, the principal said, told him they didn’t feel comfortable sitting by an empty chair. Others thought graduation should be a happy day.
Yet a few students, like senior Joshua Blake Johnson, 18, still think there should be a chair for Zachary. “It shows honor and respect for him,” Johnson said.
As conversations continued, an idea formed to honor Zachary and the others from the school district who died in the tornado. The names of the seven students and one staffer will be presented on a big screen toward the start of the ceremony.
“Five thousand people are going to see his name at the same time and he will be honored,” Sachetta said. “I feel very strongly that it’s going to make an impact, and it’s within the tradition of what we do.”
‘He was a Joplin Eagle’
On the sidewalk near 20th Street and Texas Avenue in Joplin is a plaque with the name of Niederhelman’s son. It signifies that Zachary was here. That the young boy, forever 12, was a part of Joplin’s story.
The plaque marks the spot where his body was found. The high school he would have attended is just a few blocks away.
In the years since Zachary died, the Niederhelmans have adopted two young girls. She also has an older son who is now in the military. One of the girls is turning 3 and the other is 7. Zachary is constantly in their thoughts.
“I would love to know what he would think of his sisters that he never got to meet,” his mother said. “I think of what he would look like, what he would be doing and what kind of car he would have. He had expensive tastes in cars.”
He’d ask her what her dream car was and then tell her when he got older and got a job, he’d buy it for her.
She thinks of how excited he would be to graduate. Though she said he was often bullied, with rocks thrown at him on one occasion, he loved school and talked about continuing his education.
She’s not fighting the school’s decision. But it hurts, she said.
“I have lost so much sleep and cried so much about this,” she said. “People think we should have moved on and indeed we have. But it doesn’t make the pain any less.”
In the months since the petition circulated, she said her family has gotten threatening phone calls. She said she never wanted it to get as contentious as it has.
Zachary wanted people to get along, she said. Even after the rock-throwing incident, his mom said he told his middle school principal he didn’t want the boys who did it to be punished. He just wanted to ask them why they wanted to hurt him and then for them to apologize.
“I don’t want Zach’s name to look bad if we fight this,” she said. “I would love for there to be a change of heart. But I don’t have it in me for Zach to fight.”
She and her family do plan on moving from the Joplin district. When Zachary was alive, they say, the district didn’t do enough to prevent the bullying. And after his death, the school is not doing enough to honor him as a member of the class of 2016.
“He was a Joplin Eagle,” his mother said. “He died a Joplin Eagle. Why can’t he graduate with the rest of the Eagles?”
The Star’s Tammy Ljungblad contributed to this story.