JOPLIN, Mo. | The trip took three days, moving from the mountains of Chihuahua, Mexico, to Albuquerque, N.M. Moises Carmona and a friend had decided to sneak across the border, into the United States.
They had grown up together. Now they were leaving home in pursuit of a dream — a better life.
They split up to cross the border, but reunited in central New Mexico. Carmona’s friend began dating a woman who had a cousin named Kari. It might be fun, they thought, to double date.
A few months later, Kari called her mother back in Joplin, where she had grown up. She reported meeting a quiet, strong man from Mexico named Moises. He was resourceful, thoughtful and kind. She had married him.
Her mom was happy for her.
Moises and Kari returned to Joplin not long after their first child, Mari, was born. A year later, Arriy arrived, and less than a year after that, Audri was born.
Carmona fit into the small-town southwest Missouri lifestyle. He repaired transmissions and helped neighbors install windows in their homes. He became a regular at Joplin Full Gospel, and before long, he was appointed a church elder.
The Rev. John Myers said Carmona asked the church to help him become a U.S. citizen, and Myers said the man took his pursuit seriously. He worked overtime at a rock quarry, saving money for history and English classes. A few years ago, Carmona became an American citizen in a Kansas City ceremony.
About a year ago, Carmona’s parents died in Chihuahua. He had been sending them money for years. With the extra money, he planned to update his home. New windows. Maybe a façade.
“He was bound and determined,” Myers said. “He was going to make it a nice house.”
Arriy was growing, and she and her father had a special bond. They watched Animal Planet together, and Arriy told her dad that she wanted to someday work in a zoo.
Carmona assigned his daughters chores, and 8-year-old Arriy’s job was to feed Punkin, the family’s black cat. Arriy liked cheese quesadillas after swims and had a soft spot for endangered species.
Carmona took his daughters to church concerts and on small trips. It became a common sight for Arriy to fall asleep in his arms.
“A daddy’s girl,” said Josh Patrick, who also attended Joplin Full Gospel.
Last Saturday, the church held a youth rally in nearby Seneca. Carmona and Arriy lay together in front of the altar and prayed. Must’ve been there for two hours. As he recalled the scene, Patrick smiled.
“That,” he said, “is what I want to remember.”
Kari, 30, and her husband planned to drive separately to church last Sunday. But the weather was turning, and Kari turned back, asking her husband to drive the family.
At church, they mingled as usual before the evening service. As the storm approached, the 30-member congregation gathered in the nursery. Some children began singing a song called “Praise You in This Storm.”
The massive tornado touched down, and church members took shelter. The Carmona family huddled together. Arriy hid between her father’s legs.
The building rumbled. From the side of his eye, Myers saw the roof fly off. The singing continued. Debris surrounded them, and the noise grew deafening. Myers was trapped against a wall. Carmona stood, trying to deflect falling debris, family members said. The structure collapsed, burying people in shards of wood, metal and piping.
The ordeal lasted maybe two minutes, and when it was over, there was silence. As Myers pulled himself from the rubble, he heard something. Little kids crying and screaming: “Can you see my hand?”
“You just keep raking and moving stuff until you find them,” Myers recalled, “until you can hold their hand.”
Patrick was going to the church to pick up his 11-year-old son, Wyatt, when he saw the tornado. A tree fell on his car. He ran the final two blocks.
He and Myers began following the screams. Patrick pulled his son safely from the rubble first, and then he heard Kari Carmona screaming.
“Josh,” she screamed. “Is that you?”
He punched a hole in a piece of fallen wall and saw Kari’s face. Help my children, she begged. Patrick and Myers moved debris, lifting Audri and Mari safely from the wreckage. Then Kari was helped out.
“You’ve got to get Moises and Arriy!” she yelled.
Myers and Patrick pulled about 15 people from the destruction. Others crawled out. Four lay dead.
When they reached Carmona and Arriy, Patrick said, they were gone. Carmona was sitting up. Arriy was lying next to him. They had died together, maybe three feet apart.
Three days after the tornado, 8-year-old Audri and 10-year-old Mari ran through the Carmona house. During one moment, they sniffled and nodded when asked if they’re sad. A few minutes later, they ran outside to jump on the backyard trampoline.
They’re young, said Carol Ballard, their grandmother. She thinks they know their father and sister are gone, but she’s uncertain how well they comprehend it.
“They’re kind of blocking it out,” Ballard said. “They feel bad — we know they do — but they’re trying to get back into the routine.”
Around front, Carmona’s longtime friend Francisco Gonzalez stood on the porch, discussing the next step of Carmona’s home renovation.
Gonzalez felt sad for his friend and family. But Gonzalez saw the girls and the house and knew that it meant the thing they were seeking when they left Chihuahua — a better life — had happened. It’s just that the life seemed unfinished, same as the house.
Gonzalez said he’ll complete the project.
“I told him I’d finish it,” Gonzalez said. “And I will finish it for him. Every time I see it finished, I’m going to remember him.”