Special Reports

A dash for safety as Joplin twister bears down

As a tornado raked Joplin’s hospital, Wichita Eagle reporter Denise Neil and photographer Jaime Green huddled against a wall across the street, their arms wrapped around Neil’s 6-year-old daughter, Lexi.

The three, still in their dress clothes after a family wedding, had taken shelter under a carport at Northport Health Services, a medical office south of St. John’s Regional Medical Center.

“I was watching power lines come down and exploding as they hit the ground,” Neil said later by phone.

At one point, a large commercial trash bin flew toward them.

“Jaime could see the roof above us start to go, but it never went. Jaime kept saying, ‘I’m scared.’ Lexi kept asking, ‘What’s happening?’ I kept thinking, ‘This can’t be happening.’ ”

They had been about to leave in separate cars from an outdoor wedding for Neil’s cousin — Lexi was the flower girl and Green was the photographer — when a friend in Wichita phoned to warn them the severe storm was approaching the city.

They had gone less than five miles, Neil said, when “we realized we were in trouble. The rain was going in circles. The roofs of buildings were coming off.”

She had heard that you shouldn’t stay with your car during a tornado, she said, and pulled over when she saw the medical center carport.

“We pulled Lexi out of the car. I dragged her and got up against the brick building under an overhang.”

Once the storm passed, they waited for about 15 minutes.

“I was afraid to get in the car, with all the water in the road,” Neil said. “I didn’t know if it would electrocute us because of the power lines.”

As Green began taking photos of the destruction, they saw pickup trucks arrive at the hospital with injured people in back, people wandering the streets dazed, and police and citizens directing traffic.

After an editor called to warn them of televised reports of possible explosions near the hospital, they got in their cars — both were undamaged — and began driving toward a relative’s house in Carthage, Mo., where they would reunite with Neil’s family.

Neil later found out that her sister, Annie, had taken shelter with her son at a stranger’s house as the storm hit. The house survived, but those on each side of it were flattened.

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