Special Reports

Darian, 44, and Joshua Vanderhoofven, 13 months | A mother with a mission, and her beloved son

As he rushed home from work Sunday, David Vanderhoofven’s panic didn’t set in until he was within blocks of his Joplin home.

Not a house was left standing.

The home he shared with his wife, Darian, and their 13-month old son, Joshua, lay in a heap. But he could hear a familiar voice from the rubble.

“Help me, help me, help me,” his wife cried out.

“She was hysterical,” he said later, fighting back tears. “I couldn’t hear Joshua. I finally got her to calm down and told her I loved her. I was climbing around the house throwing stuff around trying to get to her.”

Unaware of the city’s widespread damage, he left to find an ambulance. He returned empty-handed. By then, he knew it was too late.

“I couldn’t hear her anymore,” he said.

Strangers helped him clear debris. Someone had a chainsaw.

“And about two, two and a half hours later they pulled my baby out. He was the best baby in the world,” David Vanderhoofven said. “He just learned to walk. They did CPR on him, but he was blue and they couldn’t do anything for him.”

Eventually someone wrapped tiny Joshua in a blanket and handed him to his father.

“I got to hold him and I got to kiss him and tell him goodbye,” he said.

Crews made David Vanderhoofven turn his back as they pulled his wife from the rubble.

News of the deaths spread rapidly through Missouri. Darian Vanderhoofven, 44, worked at the Heartland Lions Eye Banks. She had played a role in thousands of cornea transplants in the Joplin area.

“She was the most loyal and fervent employee that we had,” said Ronald Walkenbach, the company’s executive director. “It wasn’t just a job. She was on a mission.”

She worked with transplant agencies across the region, including in Kansas City.

The chaos of the catastrophe made it impossible for her organs to be donated. But her family takes comfort knowing that she had worked to give sight to countless other people.

The Montana native doted on her family and co-workers. She made sure donors had the recognition and dignity they deserved.

“I think she had a heart as big as Montana,” Walkenbach said.

That compassion showed in countless ways. Had she escaped, her husband knows where he would have found her that night when he arrived home from work.

“She would be out there helping people. That’s what she did. She loved to help people,” he said. “She loved to cook, but she didn’t cook for two people. She cooked for 20 people.”

Joshua, his father said, was the type of baby who woke up happy. His bright blue eyes and everlasting smile gave his parents unimaginable joy.

Vanderhoofven said he has a strong support network to lean on, but it will be impossible to fill the void.

“I can’t sleep without them,” he said. “I miss them so much.”