Special Reports

Storm’s toll shows on the faces of Joplin’s residents

Rising above crushed cars and the ragged remains of scores of buildings Monday, May 23, 2011 was the empty hulk of St. John's Regional Medical Center in Joplin. On Sunday night the hospital was the scene of both terror and survival. As one patient put it, "If I hadn't held on, I would've been sucked out the window."
Rising above crushed cars and the ragged remains of scores of buildings Monday, May 23, 2011 was the empty hulk of St. John's Regional Medical Center in Joplin. On Sunday night the hospital was the scene of both terror and survival. As one patient put it, "If I hadn't held on, I would've been sucked out the window."

JOPLIN, Mo. | The monster tornado that ripped this city in half Sunday was on the ground about 20 minutes.

The images it left behind will stick with people for the rest of their lives.

Not just the denuded trees, or the buildings twisted or turned to rubble, or the cars blown with such horrendous force that they were literally heaped and fused together like sculpture.

It’s the faces of people, loved ones and strangers.

Like that of the 5-year-old boy found dead and crumpled beneath the tangle of steel and mountain of bricks that was once Joplin High School. The boy’s mother cried in grief when she heard.

“I’m devastated inside,” said Luke McCormick, the shaken 19-year-old volunteer rescue worker who helped lift the boy’s limp body from the debris at 22nd and Iowa streets.

In what was the worst tornado in the U.S. in at least 60 years, the numbers were staggering:

A death toll that rose Monday to 116. Authorities expected the number of confirmed deaths to rise today.

An estimated 400 people injured; officials would not say how many were in critical condition.

And 1,700 calls to authorities about missing people.

But there was some good news: Rescuers on Monday pulled 17 people from the debris alive, Gov. Jay Nixon said.

And rescue teams were going to keep working through the night.

“We’re going to cover every foot of this town to make sure every person here, who was here, is accounted for,” Nixon said. “There are still lives out there that need to be saved.”

The tornado, estimated by the National Weather Service to be an F4, tore a six-mile-long path through the middle of Joplin late Sunday afternoon. Much of the city’s south side was leveled, with churches, businesses and homes reduced to ruins by winds estimated as high as 190 to 198 mph.

Along with the high school, Franklin Technology Center and Irving Elementary School were destroyed, and East Middle School and Floyd Elementary were damaged.

Up to a quarter of the buildings in the city of 50,150 were damaged, City Manager Mark Rohr said. But he cautioned that no one had an exact accounting.

Some looting was reported.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency declared the tornado-ravaged region a disaster area, making it eligible for federal aid. FEMA added Jasper and Newton counties to the disaster declaration already in place as a result of recent storms in the state.

By Monday afternoon, rescuers had made three sweeps, block by block, in their search for survivors. Authorities had not released names or other details of the victims.

“There are going to be some things out there that are hard to see and hard to stomach,” Nixon said.

Survival and sorrow

Outside McAuley Catholic High School, recast as an impromptu medical triage center, Carolene Coleman, 70, dropped her head. Her voice quavered. Her eyes pooled with tears as she sat scraped and bruised in a wheelchair, her ankle bandaged.

All she and her husband were doing was stopping for a drink at the Elks Lodge, 1802 W. 22nd St. Then the twister roared and ripped. There was no basement; nowhere was safe.

“The roof collapsed on everybody,” she said. She was crushed. Her husband, Clyde, 74, lay on top of her, his body still, for nearly six hours. They were married for 54 years. People were screaming, “Help! Help us!”

She knew the truth.

“He’s dead,” she said.

When the tornado struck, Katie Thrasher, 25, was in the Sportsmans Park bar at 1729 E. Seventh St. She had just gotten off work at the AT telephone store where, normally, she closed up on Sunday. But that day, a co-worker closed the store.

The tornado flattened Katie’s home across from Joplin High. Nothing was left Monday but rubble and the concrete skirt to her driveway.

While Thrasher was hiding safely in the bar’s walk-in cooler, the tornado blasted the AT store at 1702 Range Line Road into steel and broken wood. Her friend, the one who’d stayed to close the store, died in the storm.

For Deidre Wessman, 49, the only image she wants to remember is that of her son, 12-year-old Chance Hamilton, running out of their house at 2202 Porter Road after the storm, in search of his neighborhood friends. And once he found them, embracing in the middle of the street.

“That’s what I want to remember. That sight,” she said of the boys hugging, smiling as if they hadn’t seen each other in 100 years.

The neighborhood had been all but crushed. An 80-foot-tall sycamore tree, ripped from its roots, lay across the road. Massive branches were tossed and scattered onto roofs and porches and on top of cars as if kicked by the toe of a giant. Cars had been hurled like toys.

Wessman and Chance and his father, Johnny Wessman, 49, escaped the storm in a fallout shelter dug nearly 10 feet into the ground under a heavy steel trapdoor in the floor of their home. Even at that depth, Johnny Wessman could feel and hear the walls of the house expand and contract above them. The air was sucked from their lungs. Their ears popped as the tornado roared overhead.

“I prayed,” Deidre Wessman said.

So did Chance.

“Don’t kill us,” he asked.

Then it was over.

The Wessmans made their way out of their hole. Johnny Wessman walked a few blocks south toward Cunningham Park. He saw the twister’s toll. Cars crushed from spinning like tumbleweeds over the ground. Houses obliterated. Trees stripped bare and ragged. Some would say it’s like a bomb dropped, but it’s more like 1,000 bombs, or an atomic blast.

The first body he found was a woman with a metal rod driven through her head. A man’s body lay nearby.

“I thought we had it bad, until I saw those bodies,” Wessman said of the tornado and destruction to this house. “You can always replace this (stuff), but you can’t replace a human being.”

Across the park, the tall empty hulk of St. John’s Regional Medical Center stood, its windows blown out, its floor dark and empty, like an image from Beirut.

Dorothy Doescher, 79, was in Room 413 of that hospital when the speakers announced “Code gray,” warning for a tornado.

Doescher, who has bone cancer, had been in the hospital for 14 days. Nurses barely had enough time to move the patients into the hallway when the code was changed to black: Danger, tornado bearing down.

Nurses rushed the patients into the hallway and had barely finished shutting the room doors when the winds struck. Glass exploded from the windows. Doors whipped off their hinges into the hallways.

Maritta Tatum, who’d been in Room 605 suffering pneumonia, felt the wind and rain blast through the hallway. She gripped a railing. Her head smashed against the wall, opening a gash. Patients in wheelchairs crashed against each other. Ceiling tiles rained on top of the patients, striking Tatum in her right eye, which would bulge and bruise.

“If I hadn’t held on, I would have been sucked out the window,” she said. “The force was so horrible. All the lights popped. They didn’t have time to move us any further.”

Rod Lyles, an infertility doctor from Overland Park, was traveling through the Joplin area after the tornado and stopped to volunteer.

He went first to St. John’s, but staff was evacuating patients to nearby Freeman Hospital. Lyles went to work there in a conference room filled with gurneys. For several hours, he sewed sutures on patients who had been cut by debris.

Most of the injured had lost their homes. They had no idea where their loved ones were. And they had nowhere to go. “By the dozens and dozens,” he said.

Lyles said he was struck by how, despite all of the suffering and loss, the storm survivors didn’t lash out. “Everybody — and I mean everybody, patients, families, medical personnel — was perfectly calm,” he said.

When he first arrived at St. John’s on Sunday evening, he snapped a photo of the destruction: Cars in a heap, the hospital with its windows all smashed to bits. That photo ran on The Star’s front page on Monday morning.

“My uninjured motorcycle is in the picture,” Lyles said. “All hell is the background.”

In the shelter

In Missouri Southern University’s Robert Young Gymnasium, about five miles from the tornado strike, the American Red Cross set up shelter for Joplin’s displaced people.

And they came, hundreds of them, signing in and claiming a spot in a full court of cots.

They started coming after the tornado hit for food, shelter and clothes. Many will spend the night. Others may make contact with family or friends who had been looking for them since Sunday night’s storm.

Doctors and other medical personnel tended throughout the day to the wounded and the rattled.

One doctor was looking at a couple, Steve and Shana Ostrander, and their three children; Ostrander said he and the family had just a few seconds’ warning and knew they could not get to a shelter. They had been watching weather reports Sunday on the television when Steve told his wife, “It’s coming right at us.”

They put their 3-year-old and 6-year-old boys in a closet. Shana held their 1-year-old between her legs. When the tornado hit, Steve laid on top of his wife and baby.

“The house creaked and it came apart,” Ostrander said. “Things were flying everywhere and I knew the roof and sides were all gone.”

When it was over, the closet where the two little boys had hunkered down was gone. But an ironing board in the closet had fallen on top of them. It did not blow away. It covered those boys.

When the family stepped out of their house at 1231 Montana Place, it was just like every other one on the block: splinter city.

At suppertime in the shelter Monday evening, William Whittenback sat down with a bowl of meat and rice. A large bandage covered his forehead. “Two-by-four,” he said. His wife, Lorna, had an even bigger bandage on her head.

The retired couple lived at 2305 Kentucky. They were just sitting at home and “Hell started popping,” Whittenback said.

Their house is “all gone.”

Like the Whittenbacks and the Ostranders, people wandered around the gym wondering what happened to their friends, neighbors and family members they haven’t heard from. Looks of exhaustion and anguish owned their faces.

John Ness said he shoved his wife under a mattress and then was blown though the wall of their house. “I woke up in my neighbor’s yard. We’re OK. Just a little sore.”

As rain poured down Monday, hampering rescue efforts, Nixon spoke of the lives lost and how Missourians across the state were praying for the people of Joplin.

“The trees will grow back,” he said, “the houses will be built back, but the lives lost here we’ll remember forever.”

Inside: Four pages of coverage from the Joplin disaster | Pages a8-11

@ Go to KansasCity.com for a photo gallery and video from the devastated town, and stay with KansasCity.com

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