Special Reports

Amid loss in Joplin, deep love

Beth Lansaw shared memories of her son, Don Lansaw Jr., who was killed during Sunday evening’s tornado in Joplin, Mo. She said she taught her son not to back down from a fight.
Beth Lansaw shared memories of her son, Don Lansaw Jr., who was killed during Sunday evening’s tornado in Joplin, Mo. She said she taught her son not to back down from a fight.

JOPLIN, Mo. | In their last moments together, Bethany Lansaw couldn’t see her husband’s face.

Her ears heard the commotion surrounding her, a massive tornado ripping through their home and much of southern Joplin. Her body felt the pressure of her husband’s 250 pounds; she lay in their bathtub, and with a layer of pillows between them, Don Lansaw draped himself over Bethany, using his body to shield his 26-year-old wife.

When the tornado passed, the unimaginable destruction done, she removed the pillows and began lifting herself from the tub. Finally her eyes could see.

She saw a home destroyed. Walls had been blown away; photographs and trinkets from five years of marriage had disappeared inside a sea of wreckage. Then she looked toward Don, the burly former high-school football player who had always seemed invincible.

He had suffered a deep wound to his side. While he shielded her, something had punctured his abdomen. Bethany saw Don, 31, lie on the floor. She ran to get help, but by the time she returned, her husband had died.

He had traded his life, she said, to save hers.

In the old days, the boys would go looking for storms like this. Don and his younger brother, Zach, climbed inside Don’s Jeep a few years ago and headed west. They’d heard there was a nasty storm near Pittsburg, Kan., and if they hurried, maybe they would see a funnel cloud.

They listened to the radio and took back roads, amateur storm chasers trying to see something worth remembering.

“Just country boys,” Zach, 29, said this week. “Best thing in the world to us was a real nice lightning storm.”

The storm passed without producing a tornado, and the brothers returned to southwest Missouri. Don always did like an adventure. Fear wasn’t part of his wiring. While he was in high school in Seneca, 20 miles south of Joplin, there was a bully who was relentless to other kids.

The young man picked on his classmates, and one day, Don had enough. He challenged the bully to meet him to see how tough he really was. The other boy never showed up, and after that, the bullying stopped.

“I told him don’t start a fight,” Don’s mother, Beth, said, “but don’t back down from one.”

Don was big, a defensive tackle at Seneca High, but those who knew him best say that his body carried a gentle soul. He once noticed a woman walking without a jacket on a cold day. Don wasn’t far from his car, so why not give the woman the shirt off his back? He walked over, peeled off the shirt, and handed it over. He believed she needed it more than him.

It was that kind of sensibility that separated him years ago from the other broad-shouldered bouncers at the Jukebox bar. Bethany was there one night, and mutual friends introduced her to Don. She noticed something about him immediately.

“A gentleman,” she said this week. “The pure definition of a man.”

They would’ve been married six years in July. Bethany said most days were sweet when they were together, and much of this past Sunday was no different. She had gone to see a play in nearby Carthage, and then she and Don met for frozen yogurt in Joplin.

When they returned to their home near the corner of 20th Street and Mississippi Avenue, Bethany said, the sky was greenish gray. They were watching television as the storm approached and the tornado sirens sounded.

Bethany said that she and Don saw the tornado closing in and had only a few seconds to decide what they’d do. Their house had no basement, and she said there wasn’t an opportunity to reach the crawlspace on the home’s rear.

“There was just no time,” she said. “It was just that fast.”

The safest place, she said, was the bathtub. She grabbed the pillows from their bed and brought them into the bathroom. She lay in the tub, and he quickly arranged the pillows on top of her.

As the tornado arrived and the home’s wood shutters began to fly, Don pressed himself on top of his wife, holding onto the tub’s rails as the storm came through.

Three days later, two walls were left standing on the Lansaws’ home, and their possessions were strewn throughout the yard — fragments left from a house and two lives. Magazines and dresser drawers, clothes and a cardboard box labeled from when couple moved in. There wasn’t much left to the bathroom; the tub was still there, but it had become dislodged from the wall and had been filled with debris.

Bethany said she doesn’t know what caused her husband’s injury, saying that she noticed minutes after rising from the tub that he was hurt. Her voice trembling, Bethany said she’ll forever be uncertain if they could’ve prepared for the storm differently.

“For the rest of my life,” she said, “I’m going to wonder if that was the best decision. But it was the only decision that we could make.”

Bethany suffered only scrapes and bruises. She said there’s no doubt that, if her husband hadn’t shielded her, they both would’ve died. But, she said, Don wouldn’t allow that.

“He sacrificed himself for me,” she said. “If you talk to anybody who knows me, you know he wouldn’t have wanted it any other way. As many times as people say that, it doesn’t make it easier to comprehend. But I’m always going to remember him as my hero.”

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