Special Reports

Search for missing baby captures hearts far from Joplin

JOPLIN, Mo. | The baby, 16-month-old Skyuler Logsdon, was sucked away by the storm.

One second he was safe at home with his mom and dad and grandparents. Then, in the swirl of an EF5 tornado, the house at 26th Street and Maiden Lane was reduced to sticks.

Mom flew. Dad flew. Grandparents were tossed 100 feet away, dropping onto wet grass. Faces were gashed, limbs broken.

Skyuler vanished.

If he is going to be found, today’s the day, his family hopes.

It’s 7:15 a.m. Tuesday. More than 70 firefighters from a dozen counties gather at the city’s Public Safety and Justice Center, the command post for a citywide search, rescue and, when necessary, recovery effort that for two days has occupied more than 600 men and women, many now exhausted to near delirium.

Their charge: Search the rubble. Find the living. Find the dead.

Many of the searchers have been up for more than 30 hours straight. Their faces are red, their eyes bleary. Heavy rain, almost incessant since the tornado, has inundated the city, flooding its streets and darkening the daytime sky. Monday night, the search was called off after lightning struck two police officers, critically injuring one from Riverside.

But Tuesday morning, there is a lucky break: The rain stops. It’s expected to return with a vengeance Tuesday night.

Time is running out for the living, the rescuers know. Families of the dead want to know where their loved ones lie. A special telephone line has logged more than 2,000 calls from people searching for the missing. No one knows exactly what the number of missing is, as numerous people may have fled after the storm to stay with friends and relatives.

With communication spotty — the tornado took out cell towers — the question of what happened to whom has deepened people’s worry.

“We need to move fast,” Joplin Fire Department Battalion Chief Charles Copple tells the men and women. “They’re calling for more storms today. Hail, 60 mile per hour winds and lightning again.

“We are going to work our asses off to get this done. But we want to be thorough.”

The plan is to search the tornado’s entire path again — six miles, sector by sector from west to east, before the rain returns. Clearing millions of tons of debris from this city will take months. Bodies could be emerging for a long time.

But if anyone is still alive, pinned beneath the rubble, trapped in an air pocket, caught in a basement — if anyone, alive or dead, is there — the searchers want to find them now.

“Get me an ax,” a rescuer shouts.

He wields it against a hunk of carpet. He and a half-dozen other rescuers wrench back a metal water pipe and, quickly, one piece at a time, toss aside a mound of wood and wires and crunched metal that was once an orthodontist’s office some 200 feet from Skyuler’s home.

This is the search for the boy.

It’s not hopeful.

On the edge of the mound, Joyce McNeill waits with Fire, her cadaver dog, a 2-year-old Blue Merle border collie trained to sniff out bodies. Good ones can detect and pinpoint human remains 25 feet under water, McNeill says.

At least 22 cadaver dogs are roaming the Joplin wreckage. When a dog detects a body, it lies down on that spot.

Fire lies down on this mound.

“When that dog hit, you almost shed a tear,” says rescuer James Beets, 22, who came from Miami, Okla., and has been working without sleep for 29 hours.

Matt Woods from Columbus, Kan., is with him. On the night of the tornado, the 21-year-old firefighter was at the Greenbriar, a skilled nursing facility where they helped rescue dozens of people.

He also helped remove 11 bodies.

“It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been a medic,” he says, “it doesn’t prepare you.”

Every time Fire lies down, the rescuers dig with speed, tossing debris by hand, working their way into the mound, unsure whether the next piece of wood they toss aside will reveal a boy’s body.

Behind the crowd, in silence, sit some of Skyuler’s relatives. This is a moment both horrible and hopeful for them.

Skyuler’s parents, Cord Logsdon, 21, and C.J. Tate, 18, are still in the hospital. So are his grandparents. When the storm struck, other relatives living nearby and in Oklahoma, like Skyuler’s great-aunt Ronda Cheek, 45, and great-uncle Frank Reynolds, 47, and the boy’s great-grandmother, Sue Slaughter, 67, had no clue what had become of the family.

Frantic with worry, they called police and hospitals. Finally, they came up, and over two days of searching they tracked family members to hospitals here and in Parsons and Pittsburg, Kan.

Cheek says she can still hear the knee-weakening first words of Skyuler’s grandmother, Robin Logsdon, 47, when they entered her hospital room.

“Skyuler’s gone!”

Please, could they find him?

So they’ve searched, walking into every hospital, calling law enforcement. They entered the morgue at Missouri Southern State University to see the body of a then-unidentified baby, also about 16 months old, that they feared could be Skyuler.

In their hearts, the relatives would like to believe Skyuler is alive. In their minds, they know the odds they’re against.

“If he’s not alive,” Cheek says, “we need to find him.”

Another piece of debris is flipped over. Fire sits again, until it is discovered that, as at the orthodontist’s office, the debris is scattered with dental impressions bearing human DNA.

Fire is reacting to the impressions. Another cadaver dog is brought in and this time, the dog wanders around the mound and hole without reaction.

To the family, this search around Skyuler’s home was their best shot of finding him. They would search here, in this one spot, all day if they could.

But the search team has many blocks, house after house, to go, and only so many hours of daylight. Pile after pile of rubble where a living person might be trapped or a lifeless body might lie.

The search team moves on.

“We just keep looking,” said Woods, the firefighter. “Ain’t nothing else we can do.”

The family walks away, headed back to the morgue to check again for a 16-month-old boy.

Through the day, the story of the search for Skyuler spreads across the country. By Tuesday night, a Facebook page called Bring Skyuler Logsdon Home has logged more than 5,500 messages. Some people mention things they’ve heard: A young boy in a hospital. A young boy’s body in the morgue.

Most of them send their thoughts for this boy and his family.

“My entire office has been praying for Skyuler all day,” one says. “Sending more prayers and hope your way from Las Vegas. My little boy is 15 months old and I can’t imagine how your family is feeling, but from one mother’s heart to another, sending much love and prayers.”

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