Special Reports

Joplin still bears scars of deadly tornado

In 2011, Leona Rice lost her left leg in the EF-5 tornado that hit Joplin. Eight years later to the day, the former school bus driver braved a tornado that swept through Carl Junction, Missouri.
In 2011, Leona Rice lost her left leg in the EF-5 tornado that hit Joplin. Eight years later to the day, the former school bus driver braved a tornado that swept through Carl Junction, Missouri. The Kansas City Star

She wore a white wedding dress: silk, with a short veil that hung just inches above her still-broken nose. It barely reached the faint scar at the center of her forehead where her skull once lay exposed.

Do you, Lacey Eagleshield, take Juan Santillan


There was no doubt, of course, that the answer would be “I do” at this Dec. 10 wedding.

Just as there is no doubt in 24-year-old Eagleshield’s mind that if not for the May 22 tornado, she wouldn’t have felt compelled to more quickly marry the man she has loved since she was a dancer and he was a football player at Joplin High School.

“My fiancé and I were engaged before the tornado hit and we were going to get married this summer,” Eagleshield said. “After the tornado, we were like, ‘Life is too short. Why wait? Let’s get married now.’ ”

Forces of nature have a way of shaping human nature.

On the Sunday that a black cloud destroyed much of Joplin, it also created a brotherhood and sisterhood: hundreds of Joplin residents, all of whom will, for decades, bear scars received on the same night and within minutes of one another.

Some may only see them as remnants of injuries delivered on a terrible day, but to others their scars are badges of honor, inspirations and reminders not only of what matters most in life, but also of how the storm may have bowed them, but failed to break them.

“What that night brought is hard to express in words,” said Allen Overturf, 39, a nurse who worked the night of the tornado as director of critical care services for Freeman Health System, which treated the mass of Joplin’s wounded.

“We saw hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of patients with massive trauma — exposed brains, exposed organs, very broken bones, unlike anything I ever could have perceived.”

Now, of the injured, he said, “What I am seeing is focused determination. Are they defeated? Not even close. Not at all.”

What follows are the stories of five.

• • • 

Lacey Eagleshield is convinced.

If there had been no tornado, she would not have been married this year. Nor would she be working where she is.

“I kind of feel like the reason I got hired was because of the tornado,” said Eagleshield, who in August was offered a job to teach 9th- and 10th-grade art at her alma mater, Joplin High School, where she knew students had lost loved ones. Some lost homes, and a few students died.

“I said, when I was getting hired, I said, ‘I’m from Joplin and I love Joplin so much,’ ” Eagleshield recalled.

“Me having gone through such a traumatic experience and having survived and being willing to move on, I remember thinking, ‘I can offer that to the students. I can offer that empathy.’ ”

The scar at the center of her forehead had barely healed by then.

On May 22, Eagleshield and her fiancé, Juan Santillan, 25, were on the road, driving from her parents’ home to their own apartment in southwest Joplin when the tornado, roaring from the west, engulfed Santillan’s SUV.

Eagleshield grabbed the wheel and jerked the vehicle into a gas station at 26th Street and Maiden Lane seeking cover. Wind spun the vehicle in circles.

The station’s metal awning collapsed on the SUV roof, bending it into a “V.” It smashed glass and left Eagleshield and Santillan open to an assault of whipping debris. Santillan huddled over Eagleshield to protect her.

When the tornado passed, Santillan’s arms and back emerged bloodied, gouged and ripped, as if he’d been clawed by a lion. Eagleshield’s nose was broken, smashed nearly flat to the right side of her face. Worse, and unbeknownst to her, the flesh at the center of her forehead had been ripped away.

Eagleshield’s face was so drenched in blood that when Santillan looked at her, all he could see was the white of her eyes.

At the high school, most of Eagleshield’s students prefer not to talk openly about the storm anymore. At the start of the school year, they said, they wrote and talked about it enough.

“It’s depressing,” one student said.

“Bad news,” said another.

“It’s the last thing I want to talk about,” added a third.

Eagleshield respects their silence, although, she said, sometimes students have come to her, one-on-one, to tell her their stories.

“I will never want to stop talking about it,” she said.

Her scar is her calling card.

Because of what happened that night, she wanted to waste no more time before marrying Santillan.

On the night of the storm, inside the emergency room of St. John’s Regional Medical Center, Eagleshield said she witnessed bravery and kindness in the midst of ruination and chaos. She met a nurse, Angie Abner, who held Eagleshield’s hand, wrapped her head in bandages and cared for her personally, guiding her through the halls and getting her to safety, even as she struggled to help evacuate scores of patients.

“I remember the next morning, putting a post on Facebook and asking people, ‘Help me find the nurse who saved my life,’ ” Eagleshield said.

She would never go so far as to call her scar a gift. She would rather not have it. She suffered nightmares after the storm. Because of a terrible infection that could have spread to her nose, she has had to wait until after her wedding to get her broken nose reset.

Sometimes, Santillan said, Eagleshield has cried over it all, asking Santillan if he thought she was ugly.

“You’re not ugly,” Santillan said he tells her. “You’re beautiful.”

Eagleshield is, indeed, convinced that something fine has come out of her scar.

“It gives me a reason to be thankful,” Eagleshield said. “It humbles me. It’s a constant reminder of how thankful I am to be alive.”

• • • 

Leona Rice counts three top loves in her life:

God. Family. And driving the big yellow school bus for the kids of Carl Junction, Mo.

“Nothing,” Rice, 67, a divorced mom and grandmother, said recently with her usual pluck, “is going to keep me from driving my bus again.”

Rice’s left leg is gone, sheared off above the knee. She was just about to leave the restroom of Joplin Full Gospel Church at 20th Street and Michigan Avenue when the church collapsed around her. Four churchgoers died in the building that night; a fifth died on the road driving to the service.

Rice’s leg wedged in a drain. She was trapped beneath debris. Rain and hail poured.

“The hail was beating me to pieces,” Rice said. “My leg was down in that hole.”

A parishioner found her.

“Oh, sister,” Rice recalled him saying, “you’ve lost your leg.”

It hung by threads of tissue.

Rice’s youngest son stayed at her side.

“What can I do to help you, Mom?” he said.

“Just sit beside me,” Rice said, “so I can feel your body warmth. I knew there wasn’t anything he could do. I knew that if I didn’t get help before long, I would die from — what do you call it? Shock. Or I would bleed to death.”

It was a miracle she didn’t.

Pressure and weight on the artery, the angle at which the leg was trapped, kept her from bleeding out. Rice doesn’t think it was the only miracle that day. Her right leg also was injured, punctured by screws, perhaps, and she thinks it could just as easily have been lost.

“You can take it for what it’s worth,” Rice said. “My feeling is God stopped it and said, ‘No. No, keep that right leg intact. We’re not going to let it happen to her.’ I believe God took care of me.”

Rice stands on faith, not on legs, she said.

“God’s my best friend,” she said. “I don’t know why he allowed my leg to get taken off. I don’t know why that happened. There is a reason and, one of these days, I will know what that reason is.

“In the meantime, I have been able to be so helpful to so many people.”

At Freeman Health System, the staff asked Rice, because of her positive attitude, to talk to a deeply depressed woman who had also had a leg amputation.

“I told her, ‘It’s a bad thing now, but you’re going to improve. You’re going to get better.’ ”

She remains philosophical.

“I will never be the same, that’s true,” she said. “It is a life-changing event. But there are all kinds of new things that have improved. There are prostheses. I look forward to getting mine. I look at people who are so much worse off than me. There was a man in the hospital who lost both legs in war or accidents, and there was one gentleman who came in to visit me; he had been in a motorcycle accident and lost both his legs. He came in to encourage me.”

Rice concedes she has had emotional meltdowns. She’s lost hair. Her friends insist it’s stress; she suspects medications.

She nonetheless looks forward to the future, getting her prosthesis, practicing getting in and out of a vehicle during physical therapy in preparation for the day she hopes to be allowed to drive the bus again.

“I would be doing it now, but they were concerned with me not having a leg,” she said. “If there was an emergency, I wouldn’t be able to get the children off the bus in time.”

Once she gets her prosthesis, she swears she’ll be back.

Fifty-two days after the storm, she was discharged and notes, with pride:

“I drove myself home from the hospital.”

• • • 

Jordan Aubey pulls up his shirt to show the physical way the Joplin tornado marked him.

“I still have scars,” he says, revealing streaks of healed tissue on his chest, arms, shoulders, and, if he showed them, his legs and feet.

“They were scratches,” he said. “But the scratches were weird. The scratches were like gouges, like someone had taken a spoon and gouged you — on my foot, on my knee, both legs. I did have to end up having stitches on my face and my hands.”

But when the storm that tore apart his second-floor apartment on 20th Street heaved Aubey, 27, into the air — sending both him and the bathtub he was crouching in crashing to the ground — it marked him in what he believes is a more fundamental way.

“I don’t consider myself lucky,” Aubey said. “I consider myself blessed.

“The bottom line is that after you survive something like this, you’re not wandering aimlessly. You do feel like you have a purpose.”

For five years, Aubey has worked as a television reporter in Joplin for the Fox News and CBS affiliates. He is the son of a Chicago area pastor.

That Sunday, Aubey was at home alone, finishing about three weeks of medical leave following surgery for a burst spleen that had almost killed him a month before, on Easter weekend. He felt strong, having spent the day with his girlfriend, Erin, and was scheduled to return to work on Monday when the tornado struck.

Aubey has always kept his personal views and beliefs separate from his work. But inside, he possesses abiding faith.

“You hear people say, ‘If you think you’re going to die, make peace,’ ” Aubey said. “I talked to God, saying, ‘I’m going to do my best to get through this. If it is my time to go, so be it. I’m going to fight to the end.’”

His crash to the ground also shattered his hip, requiring titanium plates. Aubey believes his survival is no accident.

“Believe me, I would be the last person to say I deserved to survive,” he said. “I’m talking to you of how I believe. I’m telling you what I believe. To each his own. It’s a free country. If there is any question of who saved me that day, it is the angels and it is God. It is a gift.”

His purpose, he believes now, is to dedicate himself as a reporter to telling the stories of other survivors. It helps them. It helps him.

His scars, he said, exist to remind him.

“I still have that gift,” he said. “I don’t want to ruin it.”

• • • 

Teenagers are often self-conscious, shy about their bodies and their image around friends.

Steven Weersing, 17, is unabashed and unashamed.

“A lot of people want to see my stomach and all that. I don’t mind,” he said, peeling off his shirt inside his father’s home on the northwest edge of Joplin.

The shaggy-headed teenager, a self-described stay-out-late, defy-authority young man, reveals a massive scar — green and purple, a shallow crater running from his belly button to his nipples. After he was all but killed in the tornado, a pernicious mold and fungal infection ripped through his body, bringing him to the edge of death and forcing him to be placed into a medically induced coma at Freeman Health System and then Children’s Mercy Hospital for 21 days.

The mold ate the skin and muscles of his chest. Doctors cut away four ribs and a huge slice of his chest wall.

“That’s mostly why I show them, ’cause I survived something really crazy,” said Weersing, his black hair jutting out from beneath his backward ball cap. “I died and came back to life.”

He means it literally and figuratively.

Weersing had been driving around with his buddies, tooling through the center of Joplin when the sirens went off and the tornado heaved the town. The boys struggled to outmaneuver it, but drove smack into its gut.

“When the tornado hit, my friends picked me up and started carrying me to the car,” Weersing said. “They put me in the back of this truck. I died in the back of the truck. They had to revive me. My lung collapsed. I had a punctured lung and I had broken ribs on the right side. I remember waking up sometimes and I’d just start screaming and I’d pass out, and then I’d wake up again.

“My friend would tell me to stay awake. I passed out and I woke up in Kansas City.”

It was nearly a month later.

The storm changed him, Weersing said. He had been difficult enough to have a case worker with the state Division of Youth Services. He had trouble in school. He’d stay away from home for days at a time.

Weersing’s father, David Weersing, 45, who works in construction and repairs heating and air-conditioning systems, noted the change in his son.

“We want to do things different now,” he said.

His son recently began going back to school to earn his high school diploma. He still goes out with his friends, but comes home earlier of his own accord.

“I sort of look at life different now,” Weersing said. “It’s worth living, because, before, I didn’t really care. I didn’t care if I died. I just wanted to do whatever I wanted to do. Now, I see it’s important to be alive.”

Multiple surgeries, physical therapy and skin grafts await.

An excitement junkie, Weersing dropped to 106 pounds in the hospital and by autumn was back up to 135. Once strong, he said, “I struggle sometimes to unscrew a cap off a pop or something.”

There are good signs, said his worried father, that his son is getting much better. Not long ago, Weersing jumped on a four-wheel all-terrain vehicle with friends.

“It was fun,” Weersing explained to his father, who stood by shaking his head in disbelief. “It had brakes.”

• • • 

No one can see Susan McKee’s scar. It’s invisible, emotional and branded on her heart.

The way she sees it, she owes it to her husband, Jesse, to finish what they started.

With help, she’s gutted the kitchen, put in a new floor and hung new cabinets. She picks up a light fixture, fiddles with the wires, and begins to install it in the middle of a room she and her husband planned to remodel.

“I am determined to live my life in his memory and his strength,” said McKee, 41.

Jesse McKee, 44, died the evening of the storm. Susan McKee will tell you that when he died, she lost more than the father of their three children.

“I lost my husband, my best friend, my soul mate,” she said.

The Neosho, Mo., couple were in the family pickup in the middle of Joplin with two of their three kids, Justin and Zach, when the tornado roared toward them. They tried to get inside a store, but the panicked employees locked them out.

They sped away as fast as they could, parking behind the Walmart along Range Line Road.

The tornado hit them with full force.

The truck spun. It tumbled; no one knows how many times.

The boys emerged fine. Susan McKee injured her head, her ribs. Clots would form in an arm and a leg; a horrendous bruise engulfed her back. She would be hospitalized. Even now she suffers some memory loss.

Jesse didn’t move.

“When I got out of the truck,” she said, “I already knew Jesse was dead.”

She had loved him from the time she was 13 and he was 16.

He went into the Air Force soon after high school. When he got out and came home, he asked McKee on a date, telling a buddy, “I’m going to marry her.”

“I already knew I loved him,” McKee recalled.

Three months later, on June 15, 1991, they married. Jessica, their daughter, now 19, came a year later. The boys followed. Together, the couple eventually opened a small business, J.J. Z Electric, based on their children’s initials.

Jesse McKee hunted. He fished. He loved to camp and spend time with his children, and watch Justin play football for the Neosho Wildcats.

He also taught his wife pretty much how to rewire and remake a kitchen or any other room.

It was the plan before he died.

It’s what Susan McKee is going to do now.

“I want to do this,” she said. “What else is there to do? I have lost so much, but I gained so much from him.”

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