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Identification, release of bodies is slow

JOPLIN, Mo. | Since Sunday’s monster tornado, many families have been left with the grief of life and death questions and the frustration of getting no answers.

Are missing family members still alive? Can the dead in the morgue finally be identified and released?

Now dozens of state and federal officials have arrived in the disaster zone to help provide answers. It’s not quickly enough to relieve the frustration for some families, but officials say it’s difficult work.

One team of federal forensic specialists is now working at a temporary mortuary to identify remaining bodies.

“In the case of mass fatalities, we have to provide assistance to the coroner,” said Elleen Kane, a spokesperson, “so that families have a sense of closure as quickly as possible.”

In addition, the state has taken control of the search for the missing, releasing a list Thursday of 232 names it is seeking help to find. Some may be dead; some already found alive.

But meeting with residents, Gov. Jay Nixon vowed Thursday that, “We will not rest until all 232 names on that list are accounted for.”

Nixon also said the full force of Missouri government would be applied to help the city.

Those crowding into the Taylor Performing Arts Center at Missouri Southern University heard Nixon promise the best the state could provide in getting the city back on its feet and its people back to their lives.

Later, Joplin City Manager Mark Rohr told reporters the death toll stood at 126 now, the nation’s single-worst over six decades of storms. More than 900 people suffered injuries.

Meanwhile, cleanup continued in Sedalia on Thursday, a day after an EF-2 tornado ripped through part of that city, injuring about 15 and damaging two trailer parks and dozens of homes and businesses.

The National Weather Service said the tornado had winds of 135 miles per hour as it struck the southwest corner of Sedalia along U.S. 65 near the city limits and traveled northeast for about 1 3/4 miles. Meteorologist Matt Dux said the tornado was estimated to be about a quarter of a mile wide and was on the ground for four to five minutes.

Authorities on Thursday said about 65 homes in the city and Pettis County had been destroyed and two dozen sustained major damage. Damage estimates would be in the millions.

List of missing

The state has whittled the number of Joplin’s missing to 232.

The number has varied greatly, with one account as high as 1,500.

For a person to be on the state’s list, a relative or friend must file an official missing person’s report.

Nixon announced the state had assumed control of the search, with the Missouri Department of Public Safety heading it up.

“What we have been charged with is to take it to the ground and get those missing people accounted for,” said Mike O’Connell, the department’s spokesman. “I can tell you they are working around the clock.”

The search includes more than 60 law enforcement and emergency management personnel, including the Missouri Highway Patrol, local detectives and federal agencies.

Law enforcement is cross-referencing the names of the missing with hospital patients and working with cell phone companies to see if phones of missing people have been used since the tornado.

“Locating these unaccounted-for individuals is a critical priority for our department,” said Andrea Spillars, public safety deputy director.

At the same time, some of the missing on the list may be dead, O’Connell said. Indeed, The Kansas City Star has confirmed with families the death of at least a dozen on the list.

In addition, 12 residents of the Greenbriar nursing home are on the missing list. But nursing home administrators reported earlier that 11 people died in the tornado; only one was known to be missing.

But The Associated Press also quickly discovered that the first person on the list is alive and well.

Sally Adams, 75, was found sitting on a wooden chair outside the wreckage of her home, cuddling her cat.

Adams said neighbors rescued her Sunday after the storm destroyed her house and took her to a friend’s home. When told she was on the missing list, Adams laughed and said “Get me off of there!”

O’Connell said that he wouldn’t call Adams’ listing a mistake and that finding her is “a good thing.”

He urged other survivors to check the list and call if they see their names.

If friends and relatives find people who are listed as missing, they are asked to call the Found-Persons Hotline, 417-659-5464, or file a report with the Highway Patrol.

For a list of the missing, go online to

www.dps.mo.gov

.

Identifying the dead

The Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Team has seen high-profile disasters before.

Don Bloom, a deputy commander of the team, has been on the scene of the World Trade Center after 9/11, United Flight 93 and hurricanes.

The process of identifying bodies is two-fold, said Kane, spokesman for the preparedness and response office.

Two dozen team members are working with Joplin families to collect victim information, from lengthy interviews with family to collection of medical and dental records.

Twenty-eight more augment the coroner’s staff and assist in the examination of remains, collecting telltale identifiers, such as scars or tattoos or healed broken bones. In difficult cases, DNA testing is used.

Some families think their loved ones’ bodies are not being released quickly enough.

Hal Simpson, a funeral director in Webb City, said he is hearing complaints. One man’s employer found his body, pulled his billfold from his pocket and took it to the victim’s wife, Simpson said.

“I don’t know why they are holding them,” Simpson said. “They have been telling (the families) two days, and we are sitting on day four. People are not too happy about that, I can tell you that.”

In another case, Lois Comfort was in an overcrowded freezer at a Pizza Hut with her husband when the tornado sucked her out. Her husband and a friend found her with her purse on her arm and gave officials identifying information that night.

Larry Comfort, Lois’ husband, said he has since filled out a six-page report and was told it could be two weeks before her body is released.

“It’s a slow process making sure they got all their ducks right,” Comfort said.

Jasper County Coroner Rod Chappel did not return phone calls Thursday.

Asked about the slow release of bodies, Bloom with the federal team said “the process has to take its time. We have to be 100 percent accurate.”

Watch for scammers

In the meeting Thursday at Missouri Southern University, residents heard tough talk from Attorney General Chris Koster, who warned scam artists and price gougers who might descend on Joplin.

He told about what happened in Harrisonville after the 9/11 terrorist attacks:

“Gas went from $2.20 at 8 a.m. that day to $5.50 by 4 p.m. — that’s 1,300 miles away. That won’t happen in Joplin. We have investigators on the ground. We will remain vigilant.”

Koster also spoke of phony charities, suggesting sticking to the tried-and-true, such as the Red Cross or Salvation Army.

He noted people would soon be arriving, offering work such as cleanup and roofing — with money to be paid up front.

“Don’t pay for work until it is done,” Koster said, asking the audience to spread the word to senior citizens and other vulnerable persons.

Nixon also said the Missouri National Guard had been placed in charge of debris removal from the city. The Guard arrived in Joplin within hours after the tornado to help with traffic and security. Maj. Gen. Stephen Danner promised his troops would not leave until the work was done.

Other state officials talked about drinking water, mental health, unemployment benefits for those out of work due to the tornado, housing assistance, new drivers licenses and help with funeral expenses.

Scott and Debbie Key heard what they wanted to hear — mainly that someone cares and how to get help with prescription medicines because their pharmacy was destroyed.

As was their home. But they are alive because they got on the floor and pulled a mattress over the top of them.

“Always buy a good mattress,” Debbie said.


@ Go to KansasCity.com

for a before-and-after look at the damage at and around Joplin High School, a list of people still unaccounted for after Sunday’s tornado, plus more photo galleries and videos.

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